"How’s your Lent going?" my husband asked me the other day.
I raised an eyebrow. He burst out laughing.
"Isn’t that what Catholics are supposed to say to each other this time of year?" he asked innocently.
My convert husband has never quite gotten over his amusement with some of the things we cradle Catholics take for granted.
In my opinion, "How’s your Lent going?" is the Catholic equivalent of secular small talk such as, "Did you catch the game last night?" and (living in New England), "Cold enough for you?"
I’m not used to making "small talk" with my husband. Living and working and raising these kids here in this house together as we do, he knows darn well how my Lent is going.
But it’s a fair question to ask, and sometimes an important one, too.
So, how is your Lent going? Are you observing the season in an appropriate way? Are the challenges you have chosen for yourself too much, not enough, or just right?
For kids, the answers can be pretty simple. Every year, for example, my kids give up sweets for Lent. A few years ago, they decided to give up television instead, but their father was so scandalized by the sight of them eating cupcakes during a season of penance that he outlawed the sweets anyway. They spent the entire 40 days television-less, cupcake-less, and deeply regretting their decision. They never made that mistake again.
Many mothers have a simple Lent, too. We don’t always have the luxury of choosing our Lenten penances when pregnancy, breastfeeding, and life with small children make some kinds of prayer and penance inadvisable, if not impossible. A few years ago, I told anyone who dared to ask that "first-trimester nausea" was what I was "doing" for Lent.
Other times, though, Lenten choices can be a bit more complicated. Have you ever noticed, for instance, the power of Lenten practices to alter the way we look at everyday things, even after the season is over?
One year, I gave up listening to the radio in the car during Lent. Since I spend a fair amount of time shuttling my kids back and forth, I gained a lot of quiet from the practice, and it was very good for me.
Ever since that time, though, Lent or not, I feel just a little bit guilty whenever I do listen to the radio in the car; it feels like a shameless indulgence.
"Shouldn’t you be doing something better with this time?" a little voice in my head seems to ask.
When Lenten choices are left in our own flawed hands and hearts, can we ever be sure that we are challenging ourselves enough — physically, spiritually, and otherwise? Do we run the risk of challenging ourselves so much that we give up altogether? Or do we run the risk of selling ourselves short?
I think the answer lies in knowing ourselves, accepting our circumstances, and being open to outside opinions.
For example, one day not too long ago, I decided that one of the routines in a strength-training program I follow was especially difficult. So difficult, in fact, that I considered dropping it from once-a-week status to never-do-it-again status.
I made the mistake, however, of telling my husband my plans.
"The other workouts are challenging enough," I told him, "I am going to drop that one and replace it with something easier."
"If you think it’s hard," he suggested, "Maybe that means you should do it twice a week until it’s easy."
I hadn’t even considered that.
I found his words to be an appropriate challenge not only for those of us choosing fitness regimens, but for anyone who decides to do something that is difficult and yet potentially fruitful. Especially during Lent, a time when the Church Herself challenges us to choose what is difficult, to deny ourselves licit pleasures, and to quiet our own passions, we should take care not to surrender too soon.
Does the fact that we find something difficult mean that it’s not right for us . . . or that we should be trying harder? How can we find a balance between doing too much and doing too little?
For me, the answers lie in keeping my ears and heart open to what the little voice inside my head says to me. A little voice that’s beginning to sound maddeningly similar to my husband’s.