While I did grow up with Easter — or, at least, the ultra-conservative Church of Christ’s version of it, which included chocolate rabbits but excluded any emphasis on the risen Christ — I didn’t discover Lent until high school put me in close proximity to practicing Catholics.
“What did you give up for Lent?” my Catholic schoolmates would ask each other. Answers varied. Some gave up chocolate. Some gave up movies. Some gave up alcohol. Some — gleefully — said they gave up giving up things for Lent.
While working at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg — just two hours or so from New Orleans — I learned more about the observance, and came to understand how the excesses of Mardi Gras (or “Fat Tuesday”) were linked to the asceticism and sacrifice of Lent. (Gorging yourself on your favorite indulgence, it seems, makes giving that indulgence up for forty days a heck of a lot easier.)
As an adult, I’ve watched my Methodist nephews struggle with the rigors of Lent. There was something really amazing about watching Walter — who probably loves sweets as much as I do — go forty days without desserts.
And so, inspired by their example, this year, I’ve decided to engage, for the first time in my life, a Lenten observance. This year, for the period between Ash Wednesday and Easter, I’ve given up sweets. Here’s how things are going so far.
Lent is helping me see my eating habits in a whole new light. Avoiding desserts and sweet snacks has driven home a sobering insight: I eat a lot of sweets. There’s that slice of cake at lunch. And that candy bar around 2:30. And that handful of M&Ms when I get home. And an ice cream bar while watching American Idol.
Skipping cake at lunch has actually encouraged me to make better lunch choices overall. Instead of the fried shrimp platter, I’m eating sandwiches, salads, and baked chicken breasts. And while I’m now conditioned to crave snackage around 2:30, I’m fulfilling that craving with a banana and green tea. And at night, I’m having soup with my entree … instead of an appetizer, an entree, and a dessert.
Guess what? I’m losing weight. And even when Lent is over, I don’t think I want to go back to my old way of eating anything and everything, any time I want it.
Lent is a remarkable test of character. The day after I elected to give up sweets, friends J&J whisked us off for a treat at Yoforia. Sure, it’s frozen yogurt. Sure, it’s just 25 calories an ounce. But it’s sweet, and it comes after dinner … so during Lent, for me, it’s forbidden.
The plain truth: that night, watching Clyde, J, and J eat their frosty cups of pomegranate yogurt, I almost said, “Okay, enough with the Lent already.” But I elected, instead, to grit my teeth and stick to my guns. After we left Yoforia, I felt real euphoria. I’d measured up. I’d passed a test. I’d passed through the fire and come out the other end of the furnace, feeling refined.
When I started this whole Lenten thing, I didn’t realize that Valentine’s Day would fall during Lent. Once this dawned on me, I almost panicked. What? Valentine’s Day without chocolate? Valentine’s Dinner … without dessert?
Clyde, bless him, gifted me with my favorite breakfast, two dozen roses, and a wonderful dinner. I didn’t feel deprived at all. In fact, I felt blessed.
Lent is altering my perceptions. Without the constant influx of sugar, every day foods are tasting sweeter. I actually ate — and liked — a dish of stewed okra, corn, and tomatoes the other day. My palate is more sensitive than ever, and every dish I sample has subtle flavors I don’t think I’ve been detecting for years.
More importantly, Lent is altering my perception of who I am and how I live. I’m very, very lucky — there’s very little in this world that I want, but can’t have. The simple act of giving something up has drawn my attention to how very much I’m given, all day, every day. Who knew that the simple act of passing up a KitKat could make me a more grateful person in general?
Lent has given me something to look forward to. Come Easter, I expect that hollow chocolate rabbit from the Godiva store is going to taste better than any chocolate rabbit I’ve ever eaten.
Until then, I’m very much aware that no one’s watching me. This is a self-graded test, after all. I could easily cheat without anyone knowing.
But I would know, and, in a very real and important way, I would be enormously disappointed with myself if I broke my vow. As things stand, I’m having a remarkable experience — and I’m gaining far, far more than I feel I’ve given up.
If I had known all this about Lent, I would have been practicing it all my life.