In Pursuit of the Spirit: Practicing Lent


I’m in the process of (slowly) reading The Art of Family and Everyday Spirituality by Gina Bria. I’m not very far along, but the way in which Bria speaks about the role of family has captured my imagination. Bria writes that family is the setting in which we are able to “practice ourselves” in the presence of others. I must admit that I have never thought in terms of practicing myself, but I love the freedom that notion could bring to how we live our lives.

With the beginning of Lent this past month, I have been thinking about the traditional practices of giving something up or taking something on. Neither of those feel quite right to me this year, and I find myself wondering what it would mean to “practice” Lent. In her book, Bria speaks about practicing ourselves as opportunities in which to integrate our identities—to pull together the disparate roles and personalities we necessarily adopt throughout our days and lives. This integration, Bria intimates, is hard work that we are never quite done with, for even as we edge ever closer to integration, our roles and identities shift with time and we must continually work to integrate ourselves.

When we give something up or take something on for the season of Lent, we are, in essence, practicing a new way of being before God. I imagine that part of what has kept these traditions of giving up or taking on going for so long is that the time span is so limited. We have six weeks in which to abstain or discipline ourselves to do something new. Forty days. Even if we fall short every year, by the time Lent rolls around again we have (rightly?) convinced ourselves that surely we can do _________ (fill in your chosen discipline or abstinence) for forty days. Lenten disciplines are an opportunity to practice being slightly different, and hopefully slightly more integrated, in our relationship with God and the world.

Last year Maggie Dawn posted a great essay on her blog entitled, “Lent: Did You Cheat Yet”. In her post, Dawn argues that failing at a Lenten discipline can be as important and as meaningful as succeeding. She writes, “one of the central purposes of Lent is to remind us that we are utterly human, and utterly dependent upon God. What could be more human than breaking a promise, failing on a discipline, achieving less than we meant to, losing our confidence or our resolve?” What matters, Dawn argues, is how we frame our failure. If simply throw in the towel when we fail and think “well, I tried, maybe next year,” then we’ve missed the point of Lent. If, however, we allow our failure to help us remember that we are utterly dependent on God, and if we pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off and try again, then we have experienced the very essence of Lent.

I wonder how framing spiritual formation in terms of “intentionally practicing being a child of God” might change the ways in which we engage, teach, and talk about spiritual formation and spiritual disciplines.

Blog-HeadShot-300x300Sarah Walker Cleaveland is a spiritual director, preacher, teacher, retreat leader, and writer. After graduating from Hobart & William Smith Colleges with a degree in religious studies, she spent two years working in Christian Education at a Presbyterian Church and a Presbyterian Retreat Center. She earned her M.Div. at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA, married her husband Adam, then earned a Masters of Theology from Princeton Seminary. Adam serves as Associate Pastor at Winnetka Presbyterian Church in a suburb north of Chicago. Sarah is currently chasing their two and a half year old son Caleb and developing her spiritual direction practice.

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