No, I’m not giving up chocolate for Lent. Nor alcohol, nor swearing, nor snark. I’m not giving up anything for Lent. I’m a vegan(ish) monk who doesn’t eat sugar, for heaven’s sake! I don’t own property in my name; I don’t have a career; I don’t decide the contours of my daily life; and I don’t have sex. What’s left to give up? Breathing?
For several years now, instead of giving something up for Lent, I’ve tried to take something on instead. I’d add an extra time of Centering Prayer in the day, or more Bible reading, or a daily walk. I’d pick a spiritual book to work through or a daily journaling practice. But in addition to being a vegan(ish) monk who doesn’t eat sugar, I’m also rather obsessive, achievement-oriented, and competitive. Adding something on during Lent activates my goal-meeting mechanism, and rather than deepen my spiritual practices or enrich my relationship with God, taking something on, as much as fasting, often becomes another way to earn and to prove–if only to myself–that I’m really a great monk and Christian.
Of course, I could try giving up my obsessive nature or refraining from self-will or criticism. I could try taking on a practice of being happy exactly where I am. But those well-meaning observances are a bit intangible. The wisdom of the traditional Lenten observances of fasting, penance, and prayer is that they’re incarnate. Your body knows that it’s not getting the coffee it’s used to, and you have to struggle through the knowledge that you are dependent on a dark brown liquid from halfway around the world to keep awake and alert. The body doesn’t lie. Embodied practices help keep us honest, too.
St. Benedict says that the monk’s life should be a perpetual Lent. That sounds rather dreary to many people, but I take comfort in the idea that my whole life is meant to be an ongoing return to the Lord. It helps even out the various seasons of the year. Picking up on this idea, our Founder reminds us that our fasting should “become for us a spiritual feast.” Similarly, “feasting, too, must have something of the character of gracious simplicity that is readily recognized as proper to the monastic life.” In other words, monastic life seeks a gentle balance, so that, whether feasting or fasting, we remain present and grounded, neither pinch-faced nor excessive.
Michelle Meech, a wonderful local Enneagram teacher and Episcopal priest, introduced me to the concept of “relaxed engagement.” For us obsessive types, relaxed engagement is the antidote to frantic, competitive busyness, on the one hand, and total disengaged lethargy on the other. If you’re a hare (as opposed to a tortoise), as I am, running 100 miles an hour and then totally collapsing, relaxed engagement is both revolutionary and devastatingly anticlimactic.
Relaxed engagement is another way of thinking about Benedict’s perpetual Lent, or the Founder’s balance of feasting and fasting. To be engaged in a relaxed way is to take seriously your responsibilities and commitments, but not to obsess over them. You can work through your to-do list, but you don’t conquer it. You rest when you’re tired instead of pushing through. You actually watch the show on television rather than half-listening to it while doom scrolling on your phone. Sometimes you choose to take child’s pose rather than another set of chaturanga. You try to be present to your life, and you forgive yourself with a shrug when you realize you haven’t been.
Relaxed engagement is singularly even-keeled. It is unsexy and doesn’t win awards or fanfare. It will rarely leave you feeling high at the end of a project. But it will also never leave you so drained that you have to evacuate your life for a few hours. It requires attention, presence, softness, and forgiveness. And I really do think that it leads to a greater sense of satisfaction and contentment, at least for me.
If Lent is about anything, it’s about coming to a fuller knowledge of ourselves so that we can strengthen and deepen our relationship with God. The rumble in your belly when you fast can reveal your attachment to food or the way you respond when you don’t get what you think you want. The commitment to sitting twice daily for Centering Prayer will reveal how easily you can find something really important to do at 4.30 every afternoon. A practice of relaxed engagement reminds me to take a deep breath, to consider stillness rather than force, to taste the food on my plate, and to confront my desire to be outside of my life rather than squarely in the middle of it. Plus, I still get to have my coffee in the morning.
Whatever your practice, I wish you a good and holy Lent. May these forty days bring us all closer to God, to ourselves, and to one another.
Please know how grateful I am for your thoughtful and kind comments on my posts. I’m sorry that I don’t have time to respond to them all. I do read every one, and I feel deeply the privilege of your sharing your lives with me. May God bless you with abundant life!