Regardless of one’s spiritual orientation, self-discipline can be helpful to one’s personal growth. In the days before supermarkets or even grocery stores, for people in spiritual or religious communities or congregations to find enough to eat in the latter months of winter could be difficult especially in the six weeks before Easter. The Christian religious institutions of the day dedicated this time, known to Christians as Lent to the spiritual practice of fasting. From a practical standpoint, this extended what supplies remained. It also provided a spiritual bonus to do so. Making a virtue of necessity, the Lenten observances of the past centuries helped individuals get through the scarcity of food.
When I was growing up of course food was abundant. Fasting certainly was not a necessity. I was taught that the way to fulfill my Christian Lenten obligations was to give up something I might enjoy eating. I was told that fasting wasn’t just about going without a meal or not eating meat; it could mean giving up chocolate, or ice cream or sweets in general during Lent as a discipline instead of not eating meat on certain days or whatever else might be considered appropriate.
My great aunt Alice was a woman of character and community mindedness. She was a great believer in doing good and volunteered in a number of organizations as well as gave generously to charities. She had a different approach. She believed in taking on rather than giving up something during Lent. She would assume extra volunteer work or make a special effort at that time to visit elderly or invalid family members or friends.
I have come to believe that my Great Aunt’s idea of a good Lenten discipline is more meaningful as a spiritual practice than giving up desserts or candy. However, I am not one to visit the sick, nor am I usually involved in any community activities of a volunteer nature. Instead I believe that for me to fulfill the spirit of this period I can take on a practice of deliberate focus: to enhance my awareness of gratitude and of opportunities for me to give. I can become more mindful of my blessings, spend more time acknowledging the kindness of friends and family, and be more aware of whatever opportunities may present themselves for me to be kind and thoughtful to others.
Self-discipline can consist of an act of rigorous denial or of observing and then acting as might be appropriate. One can lead a spiritual life whether or not one has taken vows or lives within a specific religious or spiritual setting. If my Lenten practice becomes a habit or enhances my ability to be more mindful, that will do me more good than giving up candy. In the process it may also help me to be more aware of when I can do someone a kindness. By prioritizing these attitudes in my everyday life, I can enact a Lenten discipline that will do more good in general than simply fasting from anything I might enjoy eating.