Lent is about more than self-improvement

What are you giving up for Lent?” As small-talk conversation-fillers go, it’s sort of in the middle of the spectrum: you don’t ask someone you’ve just met, but it’s just socially acceptable enough to bother an acquaintance – provided their answer isn’t too awkward.

“Sweets” is an acceptable answer. “Actually, I’m planning to get up at 4am every morning to do half an hour of prayer” tends to be a bit less so.

Yes, I’ve actually gotten the latter one from a friend, and yes, it made me do a bit of a double-take. But after the initial weirdness, I was impressed and more than a little envious. I had some sense that this was somehow ‘doing it right’; that this was getting to the heart of things in a way that many Lenten pledges did not.

Doing what right, though? What exactly is Lent? Because, to be frank, while my generation still ‘do’ Lent, the word often basically means “designated self-improvement season”.

The idea of sacrifice being a good thing in itself, apart from the goal pursued (losing weight, spending more time with your family) is increasingly alien to the culture. But not entirely alien. There’s still a sense that giving up something good, as opposed to something bad, makes some kind of sense – that pleasure deliberately foregone can be part of a life well-lived.


Patrick Kavanagh’s poem about another season of preparation and anticipation, Advent, talks about the way that you can get sick of things from overexposure; how familiarity can breed indifference: “We have tested and tasted too much, lover-
Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder.”

Kavanagh brilliantly captures the way in which children are constantly amazed at things just because they exist, not just because of anything they might be able to do. I remember, at age three, the sheer awesome majesty of fire engines.

Yes, they could put out fires and that saved lives, which was great, but they also put out the fires with hoses, and they were red, and had sirens.

As kids become teenagers “the newness that was in every stale thing/when we looked at it as children” can easily slip away.

But the deliberate sacrifices of Lent can help bring it back. When you have a healthy relationship with food, eating less of it can increase its savour. And in an age of hyper-stimulation, taking time away from the instant gratification of the internet can enable you to appreciate life’s slower pleasures. (When writing this piece I asked a few friends if they’d had the experience of spending a few hours online and then wondering what, exactly, they’d achieved. Every one of them nodded ruefully. That doesn’t happen reading a book – unless it’s really, really awful)

For Catholics, Lent is always followed by Easter, and it’s true that delayed gratification is often ultimately more… gratifying.

But what about when the gratification doesn’t come? Is there a point to Lenten sacrifice then?

I think of my friend and her 4am vigil. She was doing something positive in praying, but she was doing it at an extremely awkward time, a time that would cause her to miss out on sleep. She didn’t have any trouble appreciating sleep, nor a problem with sleeping too much. My friend wasn’t expecting any earthly reward at all, short or long term.

And it’s the importance of this kind of sacrifice that I think my generation underrates.  It’s sacrificing things to prove (not least to yourself) that they’re not your number one priority. As Jesus said “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also”.

Rule of thumb

Giving up sleep to pray shows that, important as it is, shuteye is not the centre of your life, and it’s not your boss. As a rule of thumb if you think you might be unable to give something nonessential up, that’s precisely the time you should try doing without it.

Finally, and most importantly, deliberately chosen sacrifices, big and small, can be ways of uniting yourself to Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice on the cross, of drawing closer to God.

This world is one filled with suffering – and the heart of the Christian mystery is that God can bring good out of that suffering, not endorsing or affirming but redeeming it.

It fits that sacrifices offered to God with no deal-sweeteners may in the end be the most rewarding of all. It’s not an accident, I think, that the friend I’ve been talking about is one of the most joyful people I know.

I always have trouble deciding what to give up for Lent.

This year, I hope I choose a sacrifice worth making.