Lenten disciplines: spiritual exercises or ego trip

By Maria L. Evans

So, friends, every day do something

that won’t compute. Love the Lord.

Love the world. Work for nothing.

Take all that you have and be poor.

Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace

the flag. Hope to live in that free

republic for which it stands.

Give your approval to all you cannot

understand. Praise ignorance, for what man

has not encountered he has not destroyed.

–From “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” by Wendell Berry

Last Lent, I did something that many of my friends thought absolutely, positively did not compute as a Lenten spiritual discipline–I fasted from my personal e-mail and Facebook for “a meal a day”–the eight hours between 2 p.m. and 10 p.m., with Sundays off as feast days, of course, and one exception–I would work on the parish weekly e-newsletter every Thursday night.

Several of my friends and connections in the social networking and blogosphere thought I went absolutely, positively, stark raving mad. They know me (and rightly so) as a bit of a staple in those spheres. But it was such a successful Lenten practice I am repeating it for 2012.

Now, I admit, once upon a time I was all about “penitence” in Lent–and I still think penitence is an important aspect of Lent–but it’s now merely an aspect rather than the aspect. I have come to discover, through the various Lenten practices I’ve engaged in over the years, that feelings of penitence–as well as feelings of awareness, openness to change, recognition of the sufferings of others, and a whole host of other feelings are supposed to evolve as a result of doing Lenten spiritual disciplines.

In my younger days–even when I was estranged from the institutional church–I still “gave up something for Lent.” It was one of the threads I never seemed to cut from my two decades in the unchurched wilderness. In fact, I was doing it all wrong–I was using it as an ego thing. I would pat myself on the back for giving up things and being as Spartan as an Airborne Ranger about it, and pride myself for being more disciplined than “church people.” It was part of the “Me and God and Jesus and I don’t need anyone else” attitude I cultivated in those years.

When I returned to the church, this strange evolution began–the notion that my Lenten discipline ought to be equal parts of “empty” and “full.” I would pick a spiritual discipline that had a sacrificial quality to it, but I would also pick its counterpart discipline, one that would add to my spiritual life.

So last year, I took a deep breath and announced I was going to be absent from my personal e-mail and social networking from 2 p.m. until 10 p.m. on a regular basis, and instead I was going to work on more time connecting with my friends face to face locally, and over the phone for my more distant ones. My time in front of the computer started being replaced with walks and dinners with friends, and phone calls, and various loving gestures towards my friends. The responses were interesting. Some of my friends argued with me that it was impractical–that I had lived near my Amish neighbors too long. “Why don’t you just shut the electricity off for 8 hours? It’s just as dumb,” one remarked. Some of my connections complained of their own social withdrawal–that I was isolating myself from them. I saw some of their own insecurities come out. A few even suggested I was suffering from depression.

As it turned out, though, there was also a small group that started postulating these and other ways to fast from technology…and a tiny cluster tried some variant of it themselves. I can’t speak for what they learned, I can only speak for what I learned from my practice. I tend to be a bit of a loner anyway, so the “aloneness” of being unplugged for eight hours was not as big a thing for me as I thought it might be. Oh, I suffered a few twinges of “is anybody out there?” but it wasn’t bothersome. What I discovered was it wasn’t what I was without that changed me, as much as the things that I had never bothered to notice when I was regularly interrupting myself to answer an e-mail or comment on someone’s status.

I found myself listening more and talking less with my friends on meals or walks. I caught myself focusing on the words in books I was reading without my self-interruption of looking up at my screen to see if anyone had sent an e-mail. I embarrassed a friend at dinner by saying, “Please don’t think I’m sucking up to you, or coming on to you, but you know, I’ve never noticed what marvelous eyes you have. You have absolutely joyful eyes, and I am sorry I never noticed it until just now. I was wrong not to notice that.” I learned that there were things in my yard I had never bothered to notice. I had thought I was actively practicing a “fast” at first, but instead uncovered the converse–that my attention to the cyber-world was causing me to fast from the small joys in life at times. More than once I found myself moved to tears over something mundane, or shouting with enthusiasm into the sky at how there really are fleeting moments of perfection in this broken world.

In short I discovered the last two words in the Wendell Berry poem I quoted above–“practice resurrection.”

In that upside down, backwards and sideways path living the Gospel takes us, the real spiritual practice that cries out to be uncovered by our Lenten spiritual discipline, is that we are actually practicing resurrection. Resurrection demands stripping off layers of the varnish and polyurethane we’ve heaped upon ourselves over time, and exposing our natural grain. Resurrection insists on having us dig our own graves, crawl inside them, and look out at the sky a while, smelling the wet humus surrounding us, in the hopes that when we are lifted out, the light we’ve been exposed to all along, looks somehow just a little different. Resurrection gets in our faces during Lent like a red-faced baseball manager and an umpire, nose to nose, never laying a hand on us, but kicking dirt on our shoes. We strive to live in the stillness of Lent, to hear the thunder of Resurrection.

What are you doing this Lenten season, that does not compute, but yet helps you feel Resurrection burrowing beneath your feet?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

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6 Comments
  1. Great post! I was hooked in by the title because I’ve been asking myself lately about the possibility of spiritual practice becoming a narcissistic endeavor. I’m a Wendell Berry fan, so that’s an added bonus here. Lastly, I like your example of fasting from the internet. I’m going to do some thinking about that – I think your model is a good one.

  2. Thanks for your comments. If you choose some form of techno-fast, let me know what you do and how it goes for you. I am curious to hear of the experiences of others!

  3. Derek Olsen

    Thanks for this!

    One part of the traditional Lenten discipline that’s often forgotten these days is that disciplines were rarely singular–rather, they would flow into one another. Hence in the classic form, you’d fast from food, set aside that money you would have spent and use it/give it to buy a meal for someone who otherwise wouldn’t have one, then use the time you’d saved by not eating in prayer for both yourself and others. So–there was never just an inward dimension; it’s not a true life-giving discipline if it doesn’t help you give life to the world.

    In that spirit, Maria, I love that you shared how your tech fast help you reach out and engage the people around you better–that’s the spirit of a true discipline!

  4. Exactly, Derek. The more I read about the practices in the early church and in early monastic communities, the more it seems that the “flow” you talk about is the important part of any spiritual discipline. Thanks for that bit of historical insight!

  5. Bill Dilworth

    Of course, any religious exercise can become a narcissistic trap, can’t it? The solution would seem to lie in our intention. “If any temptation to spoil your purpose happens in a religious duty, do not presently omit the action, but rather strive to rectify your intention, and to mortify the temptation. St. Bernard taught us this rule: for when the devil, observing him to preach excellently and to do much benefit to his hearers, tempted him to vain-glory, hoping that the good man, to avoid that, would cease preaching, he gave this answer only, ‘I neither began for thee, neither for thee will I make an end.'” (Jeremy Taylor, Holy Living Ch I, Sec II, Rule 8)

  6. I’m checking in again since Maria wanted to know about my techno-fast. I decided that I would not go online or even on the computer after 5:00 p.m. I write a blog, so between blog, Facebook, and email it is easy to get tied up for an evening away from family. I like the way it is working, and I think my wife and daughter like it as well. I plan to try to keep a general rule of computer-free evenings even after Lent. My daughter, several years ago carried her Lenten practice into everyday life when she gave up meat for two Lents in a row. After the second time, she decided to stay vegetarian! Hopefully my techno-fast can have a similar effect as I head into Easter then into ordinary time.

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