Several years ago I gave up adding cream and sugar to my coffee for Lent. Some may say that was trivial and maybe even a little silly. I don’t completely disagree. I thought the same thing when I originally read about the idea from a weekly column in our diocesan newspaper written by Father Bill Stelling . He wrote about giving up sugar in his coffee for Lent one year. A few years later I tried it. I dreaded even the thought of it at first. I mean, I was going to be giving up cream and sugar! Black coffee? Initially it was dreadful. Early on, I even considered giving up the coffee all together. But a funny thing happened during the 40 days of no cream and sugar coffee: at the end of Lent, I preferred black coffee –just as Father Stelling did, and I never went back.
As Catholics we are taught at an early age that it is important to give up something for Lent; but chocolate or soft drinks, or cream and sugar in coffee? Isn’t that just kid’s stuff? Jesus went into the desert for 40 days and 40 nights and fasted from food and drink. How can I dare to compare giving up such small things to something like that?
But then I do miss an obvious lesson thinking so narrowly. The small things can become big things. And even though God isn’t asking me to move mountains, he does want me to start with a mustard seed. And there’s even a practical wisdom in giving up, or doing something different for forty days. According to Aristotle, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” Aha! Forming new good habits or breaking old bad habits -changing behavior. Yeah, I think that is supposed to be part of the Lenten experience.
With that in mind, I’ve listed five things you may want to try during this Lenten Season; they aren’t kids’ stuff; but they’re not, let’s-go-into-the-wilderness-and-leave-the-world-behind kinds of things either. They’re substantial, yet completely doable. And, who knows, maybe come Easter they’ll be part of a new you. After all, at the end of the season shouldn’t you feel like, and be a new person in Christ?
“I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me.” (Galatians 2: 19b-20)
• Give up a bad habit, such as: negativity, anxiety, envy, lust, eating or drinking too much, laziness, anger, pride, greed; you know the deadly seven? Surely something rings a bell here. I like to think of Bill Murray’s character Bob Wiley in the movie “What about Bob.” He was advised by Dr. Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss) to “take a vacation from his problems.” Why not take a vacation from one or a few of your bad habits or issues for the forty days of Lent?
• Set aside more time for prayer and reflection -No time? Turn off the TV, sports talk, or political talk radio. Turn on some chant music, or no music or sounds at all and say a rosary instead. Make an appointment on your calendar each day, to spend time with God. Is there someone or something in your life that has priority over time with God? Maybe that needs re-evaluating. “If you’re too busy to pray, you’re too busy,” a former pastor of mine was known to say.
• Fast from Fast-Food -Heed Pope Francis’ and Jesus’ call to identify with the poor. They can’t swing by the drive-thru for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Enjoy a sacramental meal by preparing with love a dinner for friends and family. Look at it as food for the body and the soul. For a great pizza recipe try this: Pizza Angelicus
• Purchase some needed clothing from a thrift store –Instead of buying a new spring wardrobe, stop by a local thrift store and pick up some gently used items. Often I find it a great exercise of humility to enter those stores, browsing alongside the authentically poor. But the bargains are unbeatable! Name brands are available, if you can’t quite completely let go.
• Volunteer –There’s no better way of understanding the plight of the poor than by hanging out with them. As I reflected back around Christmas, somehow meeting them up close and personal, they, become us. There are so many opportunities to work lunch lines, soup kitchens, food drops, etc. Be sure to include your kids. It’s pretty impressive to them to see mom and dad being in service to others. And you’ll be shocked what you get in return.
So, what will your black coffee moment be, when Easter arrives 40 days from now? Will you, like kids and some adults around the world, gorge yourself on the chocolate or sodas or negative habits you have been living without for six weeks? Or will you continue new, faith-filled practices into the Easter Season and beyond as a new person in Christ?
And now for a unique Ash Wednesday reflection, I offer an NPR piece from Heather King. I assure you, you’ve most likely not heard such a wickedly funny, poignant, and heartwarming spiritual reflection like this before.
Peace to you on your Lenten journey.