Lent: A Childhood Practice Grows Up
|By Damien Faughnan
When I was a child, Lent was always about giving up things-most often sweets or candy. As a good Irish Catholic boy, I came to view Shrove Tuesday as the starting line for a sort of "spiritual Olympics." In our house and at school, children would try to out-do each other with what we'd give up or take on. I remember, when I was eleven or twelve years old, I committed to attending mass every morning at 7AM. This truly was a heroic effort on my part because, for most of those mornings, I walked several miles to church when it was dark and wet outdoors. When Easter finally arrived and my heroic act had concluded, I was ecstatic, and wondered if I might soon receive the stigmata. Today I can look back and laugh at my spiritual naiveté.
Now I'm a man. My spiritual life still manifests external things, but is much more about my interior life. I am learning to listen with compassion to the stories I tell myself, recognize how I continue to struggle with the same set of issues, and pay attention to perceived hurts and grudges held.
One of those recurring issues is that I am apparently not good at changing certain things. This is ironic because I make my living helping people create change! (We preach what we most need to hear?) Realizing my hypocrisy, I recently set about taking a look at change through the lens of my spiritual life.
"It's easy to quit smoking. I've done it hundreds of times."
-Attributed to Mark TwainWe all have some level of "immunity" to change. If only change was as simple as thinking that we need to do something differently. It's easy to change a behavior for a few days, but much harder to keep it going. That's one of the deep truths hidden within the Lenten season: forty days gives us enough time for the new behavior to become an established part of our lives.
I have learned that when I resist change, it's typically because I have competing commitments. For example, I know I need to go for a hike, but I prefer to check my email and eat ice cream. We can only truly change when we understand and identify our competing commitments. Regardless of whether Lent is part of your life, setting aside a season to examine your competing commitments is a wise step on the path to spiritual maturity.
At a deeper level, when we begin to identify those competing commitments, we start to tap into shadow work. Quite often, the source of our competing commitments dwells in the unconscious. It's as if what we know about ourselves fits into a box, and our shadow is that which is outside the box.
I recently went to lunch with a soul-brother and explained my conflict and feeling of hypocrisy. Over the two-hour conversation that followed, he asked me one question that has stayed with me for the past two weeks. I have learned it takes a very wise partner to help us discover what is "outside the box." A good spiritual director or experienced soul-brother can guide us to uncover competing commitments in a manner that is not unsettling or overwhelming. When we open ourselves to a brother and the spirit, we become truly self-generating. But beware of the man who tries to tell you about your experience or "fix" you. There are no quick fixes when we start to do shadow work.
This means that shadow work can be a good choice for a forty-day discipline. Another great quote by Mark Twain is "Habit is habit and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time." My Lenten commitment to that 7AM liturgy entailed a daily choice in favor of mass rather than the competing commitment of sleeping longer in my warm, dry bed.
On the spiritual path, we have to strike a balance between knowing we are loved perfectly, just the way we are, and striving to be better. It's a both/and. As men, if we don't have compassion for ourselves, we are unlikely to spend time exploring what might be "outside the box."
What I have to "give up" now becomes more of a shedding of all those things that keep me from love. What I have to "take on" now is a discernment of my competing priorities and making a choice for change. I know that is the divine call. While I dislike the word "conversion" because it suggests a one-time event, I also know that it approximates what I'm called to do every day, in and beyond the season of Lent.
As we move from winter into spring, consider what new spiritual practice you might undertake in order to grow in wisdom.
WE ARE ILLUMAN:
"WITHOUT US GOD WILL NOT.
BUT WITHOUT GOD, WE CAN NOT."
Fr. Richard Rohr