A high school senior recently shared with me that he had given up desserts for Lent. As successful as his Lenten practice had been going, he mentioned that he felt that “something was missing”.

Lent is a time when each of us is challenged to recognize our need for conversion. We are invited to intentionally examine our relationship with God, ourselves and one another. Lent invites us to consider those sins, vices, weaknesses, fears — anything — that prevent us from making real in thought, word and actions our God-given dignity and destiny. A popular way of ritualizing this inner journey is to “give up” something. Some people refrain from tobacco; others eschew alcohol; still others pass up on desserts. Folks choose to do without something that is good for them or they turn away from something that is not so good for them. Using traditional language, Lent is a time for fasting.

Francis de Sales was no stranger to the practice of fasting or “giving up” for Lent. He endorsed the practice of fasting, provided that it meets three conditions:

  • First, our fasting “should be entire and universal.” Our giving up cannot be limited to depriving our mouths of food, drink or other treats. Francis insists that, among other things, we should deprive our eyes of things that are “frivolous” and unhealthy: we must deny our ears of “vain” talk or gossip: we should deny our tongue words that slander, accuse or injure: we should give up “useless thoughts, vain memories and all the superfluous appetites and desires” of our will.
  • Second, our fasting should not be done for the eyes of others. Rather, our “giving up” is meant to be scrutinized by God alone.
  • Third, all of our actions, including our fasting, serve only “to please God alone, to whom all honor and glory belong”.

However, there is more to Lent than simply doing without. Drs. Evelyn and James Whitehead remind us that “fasting, at its finest, is neither solely punishment nor denial. We fast not only to avoid evils but to recapture forgotten goods”. Put another way, “the no of fasting is fruitful only if we have some deeply valued yes in our life”. We need something for which to fast. Therefore, Lent also provides an opportunity to count our blessings — and to put those blessings to work for the service of God and others. Lent is as much a matter of doing as it is about doing without.

St. Francis de Sales wrote in his Introduction to the Devout Life: “Both fasting and working mortify and discipline us. If the work you undertake contributes to the glory of God and to your own welfare, I much prefer that you should endure the discipline of working than that of fasting.” He continued: “One person may find it painful to fast, another to serve the sick, to visit prisoners, to hear confessions, to preach, to assist the needy, to pray, and to perform similar exercises. These latter efforts have as much value as the former.”

Perhaps this is what our high school senior was intuiting. His doing without or “giving up” was only half the equation: the part he was missing was the very reason he engaged in self-denial in the first place – to help him to do good for others!

As the conversation concluded, the student seemed a little bummed. Had he wasted Lent by only focusing on doing without while failing to consider what he could do? In the end, we both came to an agreement: a lesson learned is never time wasted. The lesson for all of us? Be is the Lenten season or Ordinary Time, may whatever we chose to do without on any given day help us to do what we can to bring out the goodness in ourselves – and the goodness in one another.