Vantage Point

Life and Lent

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On the elevator at work one day, I chatted with a woman who was the only other person onboard. Both of us remarked that we were looking forward to Friday—several days away—and the weekend. We hoped that the workweek would pass quickly. Then the woman remarked, “We wish our lives away.”

That conversation took place years ago, but the woman’s words have stayed with me. I think of them when I am wishing that time would fly by and a much-anticipated day would arrive. Sometimes I notice a faint realization at the back of my mind: “You’re wishing your life away.” I reflect, briefly, that it isn’t just the highlights of our lives that matter. All of our days, even the ones that seem unremarkable or dull or endless—the days that trudge by in leaden boots—are the stuff of our lives, the bearers of our joys as well as our sorrows.

I think that “wishing our lives away” applies accurately to two seasons we are in now: winter and Lent. When an icy wind is blowing, almost everyone wants winter to end and spring to arrive. I say “almost” because I love winter. It’s heat, not cold, that oppresses me most. But when the temperature is in the single digits and I’m walking against the wind, I too find myself wondering how much time is left until spring arrives. Lent can seem similarly long and difficult. If we’re making sacrifices, such as giving up something we like or taking on extra prayers or good works, we wonder whether we’ve overcommitted ourselves. Maybe we even glance at the calendar: How many weeks until Easter?

Right now I’m wondering whether I can cultivate a new attitude and look at Lent not as six weeks of deprivation—the slog through the Desert Without Chocolate—but rather as a small segment of my life that has big lessons to teach me, special graces to impart, and even joy amid whatever sacrifices I make. Or, more accurately, because of whatever sacrifices I make.

Am I not only wishing my life away, but also wishing my Lent away? What can I do to look differently at life and Lent?

Recalling the wise words of my elevator companion, I’m reminding myself that every day counts, even the ones when nothing spectacular happens and nothing grand is planned. Each day matters, and how I spend it is important. There is value and grace in doing routine chores, like laundry, as well as work that requires more thought and creativity, like reading or sharing thoughts in a discussion group or among friends. I’m also paying more attention to the difference between genuine relaxation and wasting time, mindful of a line from Henry David Thoreau: “As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.”

I’m looking at Lent differently, too: Not as a time of giving up and doing without and feeling deprived, but as what the Church intends it to be: A chance to grow closer to Christ, particularly in the ways the Church asks us to do so: through prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Saints and spiritual guides have been saying for centuries that it is better to practice humility and avoid setting grandiose goals, so my new motto is: Start small. Better to carve out 15 minutes for daily prayer and pass on dessert two nights a week than to promise double the sacrifice and give up halfway through Lent. Small steps can lead to larger ones. Giving up leads nowhere.

I know that to participate in Lent in a new way, I’m going to need to acquire a habit that does not come naturally to me: patience. It will be a struggle, so I’m thinking about Jesus and the patience it took for him to endure his Passion and death to make salvation possible not just for the world, but for me and you and each of us, individually and personally.

To comprehend the love he showed, six weeks doesn’t seem long at all.

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