Letting go during Lent

The Discalced Carmelite friar, James McCaffrey OCD tells us in his wonderful little book, The Way of the Carmelites: a prayer journey through Lent, that Lent should not be a gloomy or dull time. But instead, a time of awakening, joy and preparation. I want to add one more word to this list that he makes… liberating! I’ll admit that they are not the usual list of adjectives that we would normally associate with the season of Lent. Many of us will have it in our minds that it is the time each year where we give something up, suffer for 40 days so that we might remember what is truly important in life. Whilst this is true to an extent, could we do better? I think we miss something if we keep returning to Lent year after year with this mentality. Hopefully, we can turn it around, or as my Carmelite brother Paul told us in his reflection a few weeks ago – let’s do Lent differently!

Personally, I’m not completely convinced that giving something up, and letting go are the same thing. I think that to give something up hints that we might always want to come back to it. I can give up chocolate for Lent, but that always comes with the expectation that I will open a bar of chocolate (or two) on Easter Sunday. What then is the purpose of limiting my intake of chocolate for 40 days if at the end I will run straight back to it? We could take this to the extreme and say that being forced to give something up has the potential to damage us, make us loose hope completely. We are only just beginning to understand and come to terms with the after affects of the Covid pandemic. The social isolation and countless other issues which stem from having to give up social interaction and companionship.

It makes me think that if we are forced to give something up, we never truly free ourselves of it because we will cling to the hope that we will be able to run back to it in the end. Where is the transformation in this, where is the liberation? I don’t think there can be, because whatever we run back to at the end of our Lenten fast is never enough to sustain us forever. Maybe we can recognise this especially in our tendency to give up the same thing for Lent each year. Are we kidding ourselves that Lent is a time of giving up, when we know that Easter Sunday we will slip straight back into our old routines?

Letting go on the other hand, seems so much more liberating. It suggests that not only are we prepared to leave something behind, but we do so because we have found something better – for me, it is full of hope. I think this is applicable to most aspects of our life, let alone our faith. We let go of old habits, because we recognise that ultimately, they do us harm, or that they are limiting our potential by not allowing us to grow. This does not mean that letting go is much easier than just giving up. If anything, it is probably more difficult as it asks us to really evaluate what is needed for our lives. When I struggle with this, I turn to scripture, and especially to St. Paul. He tells us is his letter to the Philippians ‘more than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christand be found in him’ (Philippians 3:8-9). To know Christ better, to be freer for Him, and to ultimately found in Him, is this not the ultimate reward we look forward to?

In this year’s message for Lent, Pope Francis reminds us that whenever God has spoken to humanity, it has been a message of hope. The very first sentence of his message is so powerful, for ‘when our God reveals himself, his message is always one of freedom: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Ex 20:2)’[1]. Lent is the preparation for this ultimate liberation, the most perfect freedom from the slavery of things that hold us back, that hold us back from being found in Christ. A liberating Lent then is what we must aim for, a time of joy, awakening and preparation. A time where we can truly let go of those things which hold us back because we are faced with the sure hope, and new life that Christ’s resurrection promises. Giving up leaves our old ways by the front door, ready to be picked up again after Lent and carried forwards into the future. Whereas letting go allows us to move forwards freely into the future, and to truly be liberated by the resurrection of Christ at Easter.

Matthew Janvier O.Carm

[1] Message of the Holy Father Francis for Lent 2024 (vatican.va)

Weekly Reflections

Steps on the Journey - weekly Reflections from Carmel
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