Lauren Winner in her book “Giving up reading” says that there was nothing she liked better than curling up with a good book she devoured novels, mysteries, biographies, and memoirs. Working in publishing herself, she had access to every imaginable title. She always had a book with her -on the bus, in restaurants, in the park, at the beach.
On Ash Wednesday, she heard her friend, the priest, preach on fasting. He spoke of the need to give up some- thing that was truly important, giving to God “something that really matters, something you really love, something that is hard to do without.” After mass, the two met for coffee. She said she was impressed and was thinking about what to “fast” from this Lent.
Pointing to the book she always carried, he challenged her: “Reading, it seems to me, is something you really love. It may be the thing you love most, would like you to give up reading for Lent. I think you might spend some of the time you spend with books connecting with other people.”
“O.K.,” she said, recklessly, thinking that she was just going to give up a leisurely activity for a few weeks. But it turned out to be more of a struggle than she imagined. She discovered that reading was much more than a fall-back activity in her life -it was her life. Giving up that new mystery or novel did not just leave her with more free time. It also left her starkly alone with her life. She remembers: “I read for many reasons -for information, for pleasure, and I know I also read to numb any feelings of despair or misery …as a tonic or an escape route. When I am upset or sad, my cure is to get absorbed in some feel-good novel I’ve read a dozen times. “During Lent, I didn’t have that cure, and I found myself, not surprisingly, praying more. I prayed more because I had time on my hands. And I prayed more because I didn’t have the usual distractions. I was face-to- face with my sadness and my mistakes and could not take them [to some imaginary place]. I had to take them to God. “Of course, that is what the priest had intended. He didn’t want me to give up reading just because it was the equivalent of some dearly loved possession, but because it might move me closer to God.”
Lent is the season for such meaningful and focused fasting – fasting not just for the sake of “giving something up” but putting aside whatever derails or hampers our relationship with God and alienates us from others. Such fasting can be the beginning of transforming our lives from a stressful, frustrating struggle to make everything work to finding peace in discovering exactly what it is important and fulfilling. Fasting can also be a beautiful means of expressing thanks to God from whom all good things come. And, even in our own time, fasting can be a forceful cry for justice for the poor and destitute, for the powerless and oppressed. Meaningful Lenten fasting enables us to go off into the “wilderness” and take a hard look at the choices we make in our lives and the values upon which we actually live our lives, without the distractions that steal our attention and energy from the things of God.
In our busy commutes to and from everything and everybody, we miss a great deal of the beauty, the satisfaction, the meaning of our lives. And so the Spirit of God calls us each Lent to the desert, to re-connect with the “music” of God’s compassion and peace.
Make this Lent a “desert time” for yourself, a time to look quietly and prayerfully beyond our always-behind-schedule lives in order to realize the promise our lives hold and the joys yet to be realized.