Up here in the northern half of the planet, where Lent coincides with the end of winter and the onset of spring, the imagery of rebirth and rejuvenation accompanying these natural events carries a powerful message: Shake off spiritual lethargy and be renewed in grace.
Unlike what happens every spring, however, spiritual rebirth doesn’t take place automatically. Effort on our part is necessary. “Lent” is the name we give the deliberate process of spiritual renewal that the Church particularly emphasizes at this season.
A central part of it is the practice of self-denial through which, paradoxically, we grow in self-possession in order to give ourselves more perfectly to God. “Nothing is so likely to corrupt our hearts and to seduce us from God, as to surround ourselves with comforts,” Cardinal Newman said in a sermon on self-denial. Lent is a special, though hardly exclusive, time for putting some of those comforts aside and focusing on God.
That is what things like fasting and abstinence and “giving up something for Lent” are meant to help us do. With that in mind, and without pretending to any special knowledge drawn from personal experience in these matters, let me suggest a few common sense rules for the practice of self-denial in Lent.
First of all, don’t inflict your mortifications on other people. If doing without something makes you short-tempered with the people around you, work on controlling your temper first or else find something else you can deny yourself without becoming a pain in the neck.
In the same vein, remember that self-denial is between you and God. Your spiritual heroism, such as it is, shouldn’t be advertised. “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them,” says Jesus — specifically citing almsgiving, prayer and fasting — in the Ash Wednesday reading from Matthew’s Gospel. God knows what you’re doing. That is enough.
Next, when looking for something to deny yourself, make it something in your everyday experience. Consider concentrating on what some spiritual directors refer to as your “predominant fault.” If, for instance, your problem is laziness, try getting up 45 minutes early on weekdays in order to get to Mass. If it’s a tendency to waste time, set a definite time for turning the TV on — and turning it off — and stick to it. Use the time you’ve gained by not sitting in front of the tube to help out around the house or maybe even read a good spiritual book.
Finally, make it a point often to remind yourself why it is you’re practicing self-denial and even to pray about it. “We have to give ourselves really, not just in word but in deed and truth,” St. Josemaria Escriva once said. And giving ourselves to God and others requires that we first possess ourselves — something that the discipline of Lenten self-denial can help us to do.
As for how to proceed, Newman calls attention to some practical possibilities: “Accept the daily opportunities which occur of yielding to others, when you need not yield … . Turn from ambitious thoughts, and (as far as you religiously may) make resolves against taking on authority… . Sell and give alms; therefore hate to spend money on yourself… . Shut your ears to praise … . Curb your tongue, and turn away your eye, lest you fall into temptation . … Be up at prayer ‘a great while before day.’”
“So shall self-denial become natural to you, and change come over you, gently and imperceptibly,” Newman adds. Kind of like winter giving way to spring during Lent.
Russell Shaw is an OSV Newsweekly contributing editor.