I had been leading a Bible Study in my sorority for awhile, and I was always hoping for more girls to join. These particular sisters of mine had never come to Bible Study, so I was pretty surprised, and quite honestly thrilled, to hear them talking about Lent. My excitement turned to sorrow, however, as I overheard the rest of their conversation.
“I’m going to give up sugar so I can get ready for my trip to Cabo over Spring Break.”
“I’m cutting out bread — I really need to lose a few. And maybe I’ll go to the gym every day too.”
It devastated me to hear these women, my friends, talk this way. It didn’t upset me as much that they were planning on superficially adopting the religion I practiced for 40 days, but I was unsettled by the way in which the beauty and hope of the Lenten season had been reduced in their minds to the coldness and restrictiveness of a diet.
I don’t blame these women at all. The world in which we live makes this sort of warped view of fasting almost impossible to avoid. How can we possibly untwist dieting from the concept of self-denial for a greater good? And how can we combat lies that we aren’t good enough as we are, that our bodies need to look a certain way in order for us to be successful, wanted or loved? The falsehoods spoken to us by a diet culture are deafeningly loud.
When Lent rolls around, it can somewhat seem like everyone becomes a Catholic, not for the purpose of spiritual growth or deepening their relationship with Jesus, but instead as an excuse to diet in a way that is publicly accepted and even celebrated. Turning Lent into a diet isn’t just something that happens among non-Catholics either. There is a strong temptation for those of us who consider ourselves Catholic to make the season about ourselves instead of about God. Not only can this misuse of Lent inhibit our capability to receive the graces God wants us to experience during this time, but attributing spiritual significance to our successes and failures at dieting is downright dangerous. Doing so opens the door for us to judge ourselves — our worth and our goodness — based on how well we adhere to the restrictive rules we’ve set for ourselves. And this is not what Lent is about.
The season of Lent should be a time during which we experience a new closeness to Jesus Christ as we remember the sacrifice he made for all of humanity through his crucifixion. In doing so, we have the opportunity to learn more about God’s infinite love and mercy and to enter more fully into the personal relationship He desires with each of us. It is a chance also to understand ourselves better, to grow in humility as we come to recognize and confront our human weakness, and to invite God into those spaces where we need grace to overcome our shortcomings. Unfortunately, instead of being reaffirmed in our authentic identities, we can easily end up at Easter feeling dejected after devoting all of our energy toward the pursuit or maintenance of a false identity — our image.
For many of us, the diet culture has impaired our ability to see fasting as anything more than a means to a selfish end. When we think of denying ourselves of any type or amount of food, our minds are quick to snap to the end goal — how can I use this to my advantage? What’s going to make my body look the best by the end of this? But our attempts to control the physical outcome of our efforts only get in the way of our ability to receive the graces God can work through them. Instead of growing in appreciation for the blessings we have, we become focused on our lack of satisfaction with our bodies. Instead of realizing our profound need for Him, we become self-reliant.
This Lent could be different.
Jesus is extending an offer for each of us to come to him as we are. Some of us might be in a place where fasting dietarily is not an option. I urge you, dear reader, when considering your Lenten fast, to ask Jesus where he wants to meet you and to seriously think about your motivations. If any part of you is tempted to turn fasting into dieting, choose differently. Remember that Lent is not about restricting under the guise of holiness. It is about becoming more you, not becoming less of you.
And if you, like my well-intentioned sorority sisters, are not Catholic or are new to this whole Lent thing, why not explore its true meaning? I guarantee the results will be far more significant than those of any diet.
At the end of Lent this year, who do you want to see when you look in the mirror? A “successful” dieter, or a more whole version of you?