I started Lent off without a specific plan to give something up "for Lent." I understand that to forgo voluntarily some specific pleasure or luxury -- chocolate, or Twitter, or cream in your coffee -- is a valuable penitential practice for many. My husband gives up chocolate every year, Sundays included, and reports that its absence bears fruit for him. I don't like to do it though -- I find that it doesn't keep me in a Lenten frame of mind. It feels more like an endurance contest. I get more focused on "making it through" and on success -- personal success.
I don't like associating Lent with "success." This is not the point. So the longterm deprivation thing doesn't seem to be the right personal penance for me.
I feel drawn to an attitude suggested by this hymn which appears in the Liturgy of the Hours:
More sparing therefore let us make
The words we speak, the food we take,
Our sleep and mirth, and closer barred
Be every sense in holy guard:
Avoid the evil thoughts that roll
Like waters o’er the heedless soul;
Nor let the foe occasion find
Our souls in slavery to bind.
(The translator is John Mason Neale, the original text, attributed to St. Gregory the Great, Ex more docti mystico.)
I like the idea to rein in everything just a little bit, more sparing in food, in speaking, in entertainment, in sensual luxuries; rise a little earlier and go to bed a little later to make room for extra meditation and reading. Every time I remember it is Lent, to stop and take quick stock of my environment and make a little choice to spare something. It can be something small: I am pouring the tea: let me take it without milk today. I am driving: slow down to the speed limit. I am unloading the dishwasher: do it gently, without clanging pots (and definitely without sighs of annoyance). I am in the shower, one of my favorite petty luxuries especially in the winter: finish up and turn it off instead of lingering under the running hot water.
Last week I was reviewing Introduction to the Devout Life, which counsels one who is struggling with a particular vice to practice the opposite virtue as continuously as possible. This year I seem to be struggling with my temper, with anger, quite a lot; so I was studying the chapter entitled "Gentleness."
I wound up ranging over quite a lot of material, reading works by St. Francis de Sales, by St. Alphonsus Liguori and also the Sermon on the Mount; in trying to work out references from St. Francis's French original text, I discovered that "Blessed are the meek" in French is rendered "Blessed are the débonnaires," which amused me greatly. It turns out that our derivative "debonair" is not very close to the meaning of the French word, which is something like "good-natured" or "easygoing," meaning not easily ruffled, calm. The French in turn is a straight translation from the Latin Vulgate's "mītēs," which also means calm or placid, a word that is used to describe rivers or weather. (Nature. Bon aire.) Our word "meek" mainly means something like "submissive" these days, which is accurate in the sense that one "submits" one's impulses to whatever happens to them rather than getting angry, but it really implies a kind of grovelliness that isn't there in mītēs at all. It turns out that there is quite a bit of debate out there about the meaning of the Greek word that is rendered mītēs, meek, débonnaires, but as I am not a Greek scholar yet I will not get into that.
Anyway, St. Francis's advice for those struggling against a naturally short temper is to "speak and act at all times as gently as possible," and I hit on that as a particular Lenten practice: be sparing in my motion and speech, whenever I can. As soon as I remember: slow down, stop banging into things, walk more carefully, speak more deliberately, eat more slowly, move more purposefully. Try to set this cup down noiselessly, slide the book into its spot instead of tossing it into the bookshelf, stir the sauce without splashing. I find I have to plan ahead slightly so I am not carrying more things than I can manage gently, leave myself a little bit more time so I am not rushed.
It works. It sinks into the soul from the outside.