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Loving Lent


Catholic or not, a little deprivation goes a long way.


Lent arrives Wednesday, and, as it always does, it comes before we're ready, when there are still wreaths on the barn doors and Fraser-fir needles trapped in odd crevices of the floor.

I want to tell it to come back later, maybe in mud season, in late March. There's still too much winter afoot, and I'm not yet willing to concede that the excesses of Christmas are over, that there will be no more eggnog shakes at McDonald's for another nine months. My kids, however, have emotionally moved on. They long ago consumed the contents of their stockings, and before the Super Bowl contenders were known, they had engaged in the most serious of discussions: what they were giving up for Lent.

Katherine, at 7, the youngest, announced that she was giving up dogs, since she loves them. The rest of us had to point out that since she doesn't actually have a dog, she can't give them up. And if she did have one, and gave it up, the local humane society would be quite irate. But her heart was in the right place.

Me, I'm trying to get there. What am I giving up for Lent?

Thisnot papal infallibilityis the central question for Catholics at this time of year and, increasingly, for Christians of all persuasions. The Rev. Mark D. Roberts, a Harvard alum and Presbyterian pastor, grew up making fun of Lent ("Lent was one of those peculiar practices demanded of Roman Catholicsanother great reason to be a Protestant") but now observes it with the zeal of a priest. One year, he gave up televisionno small thing for a basketball fan.

Now senior director of the Laity Lodge, a retreat center in Texas, Roberts blogs energetically about the glories of Lent, encouraging everyone to observe it. It's not, he writes, "some superfluous Catholic practice."

"If Lent isn't your cup of tea, then don't feel obligated to keep it," he writes. "You should realize, however, that millions of ChristiansCatholic, Orthodox, Protestant and Independenthave found that recognizing the season of Lent enriches our worship and deepens our faith in God." Indeed, all the great religions have a day or month devoted to fasting and self-denial: Ramadan for Muslims, Yom Kippur for Jews, and Maha Shivratri for Hindus.

This is all well and good, but we live in an inclusive society, so why leave the atheists out? There's not enough rending of garments and gnashing of teeth in American society (except at the South Carolina State House), and there's plenty of good that can come from 40 days of discipline, fasting, and widespread abstinence from tweeting. Atheists, agnostics, pagans . . . everyone should get on board.

"If Lent isn't your cup of tea, then don't feel obligated to keep it," he writes. "You should realize, however, that millions of Christians Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant and Independent have found that recognizing the season of Lent enriches our worship and deepens our faith in God."

In the past decade, "abstinence" has become a bad word. Support itfor office parties, school curriculums, and the myriad time-wasting inanities of Facebookand you're dubbed a humorless prude. Even dieting, which is supposed to be about short-term deprivation for long-term benefit, no longer demands strict restraint; witness "The Cheat to Lose Diet" and its ilk.

But discipline and deprivation, accompanied by an overall sobriety of self, are necessary conduits of virtue. Surrender something important for a few weeksbe it TV or ice cream or, well, dogsand you emerge on the other side with lightness of being, seriousness of purpose, and pride of accomplishment, feeling good even if there's still snow on the ground. Plus, if you're lucky, you might lose a few pounds. We, as a culture, need Lent, or something like it, to humble us and ground us for a while.

Purists decry "cafeteria Catholics" who treat the catechism of the Catholic Church as a menu from which they select the tastiest morsels, leaving the hard-to-digest parts for Dan Brown villains and the pope. The cafeteria Catholics run the danger of being what George Will once wrote of Jerry Brown: "a Catholic in everything but theology." For a Catholic, that's not a good thing. But for everyone else, there are far worse things you can be.

I have a friend who, inspired by an NPR report and the promise of good health, fasts for 24 hours every week. Going a full day with nothing to eat, just water, is for the steely willed and strong of heart, like Gandhi and Moses and Jack Bauer. For the rest of us slackers, there's Lent.



Jennifer Graham. "Loving Lent." The Boston Globe (February 14, 2010).

Reprinted with permission of the author Jennifer Graham.

The Author

Jennifer Nicholson Graham is a writer and editor based in Boston, MA. Formerly a religion columnist for Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, she is a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal and The Boston Globe Magazine. Ms. Graham's essays have been published in magazines such as Runner's World, Parents, Newsweek and Family Circle. Her website is

Copyright © 2010 Jennifer Graham
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