Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Seeing Startling Truths In The Lenten Mirror

Published marzo 9, 2006  | Available In English

I love the “before and after” shots of dieters in the newspapers. Invariably, there is a lady in a mountainous dress in the “before” shot, and then a lovely waif in the “after,” and her smile suggests she has the perfect life.

The stories tell of her renewed energy and her ability to play various sports. But if you have ever—like me—dieted for a lengthy time period, you know something is missing from these tales.

Even if you have lost 100 pounds, you still have the knowledge in your heart of hearts that you could, at any moment, throw open the freezer, grab the gallon of butter pecan ice cream and fall soundly off the proverbial wagon.

Which brings us to Lent.

Some approach Lent as a diet. “Well, I’ll skip sweets for Lent, and I’ll be good to go, and, gosh, I might even lose a few pounds by Easter!”

I know the thought process all too well, since I have been there myself. Some years, it seems that what starts out as a plan to show Jesus my love ends up as a weird self-improvement technique.

Invariably, if I give up anything related to my mouth, whether it is chocolate, potato chips or wine, I start feeling like I am on a diet, and you know what happens next.

I start cheating.

Yes, it is true: I have actually broken my Lenten promise more than once and stuffed my face full of whatever fine delicacy I had promised to give up.

This perverse habit goes back to childhood years, when we were forbidden to eat meat on Fridays.

Invariably, that was the day when I fiercely craved meat and would sometimes sneak thick, greasy slices of pepperoni out of the fridge, even though I knew it was wrong.

Well, now my secret is out, and it’s something you have suspected before: I am not a saint.

Still, every Lent, I feel that I have been given a new chance to make it through the season without breaking down.

In “New Seeds of Contemplation,” Thomas Merton nicely summed up why Lenten fasting and abstinence are good pursuits.

“No man can live a fully sane and decent life unless he is able to say ‘no’ on occasion to his natural bodily appetites.”

Merton went on to say that someone who always eats and drinks whatever he wants, when he wants it, is not a free person but is, instead, a slave to his appetites.

Lent obviously gives us a chance to prove that we are not enslaved to ice cream or Chianti or fried chicken.

Most importantly, Lent provides a mirror to see our selves in. And this can be a wonderful, albeit frightening, opportunity.

We like to think we will look in the mirror and see this kind, compassionate person staring back at us. She tries to be loving and generous to family and friends.

And she would never break her Lenten vows because she has such grand self-control.

But often we gaze into the Lenten mirror and see what is broken in us, and see where God’s healing is needed.

Maybe we discover that our “fix” is entertainment. If we give up TV, movies or computer games, we may feel edgy and out of sorts for the first few days.

Emotions start popping up, and without the tranquillizing effect of hypnotic games and shows, we struggle to deal with them.

People who give up recreational shopping for Lent may find themselves with extra time on their hands.

What to do with the hours that were spent wandering in the mall or clicking on the computer mouse? What to do about the sorrows that shopping is intended to distract us from?

One Lent, I tried to give up worrying and gained terrific insights into the way my mind works.

I would start fretting about my aunt’s health, then jump to worries about my own health, then my husband’s, and then fret about terrorist attacks and the overall increase of violence in the world.

That Lent, I discovered that the majority of things I worried about were fabrications of my own mind. I also recognized that my habit of worrying revealed how little I really trusted that God would take care of me.

The Lenten mirror gives us a chance to see what we are dependent on, besides God.

There are so many things we turn to when we are angry, frightened or distressed, and they have nothing to do with God.

We may run to the nearest Bruster’s Ice Cream parlor, like yours truly, play solitaire on the computer, spend money recklessly, get drunk or fall into bad relationships.

Drinking wine, playing games and snacking are fine in moderation but may become false idols when we turn to them instead of God.

So Lent is a time to find out what we are worshipping besides God.

Is it shopping? Is it gambling? Gossiping? Sex? Overindulging in food and drink?

Unless we see Lent as an opportunity for spiritual growth, fasting and abstinence can become bland, automatic practices that we feel we “have to do” because our pastor is encouraging us.

Some years, Lent has been a time of real spiritual illumination for me. Other years, I forget what I learned the year before and stumble along in a big mess.

But each year, no matter what addiction I am giving up, one thing is true. Whenever I look into the mirror, I see an abiding, never-changing truth: Without God’s help, I can do nothing at all.

Lorraine V. Murray is the author of “Why Me? Why Now? Finding Hope When You Have Breast Cancer” and “Grace Notes. Embracing the Joy of Christ in a Broken World.” You may visit her Web site at and write to her at Illustration by Jef Murray.