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 | By Sister Pam Smith

Refining our doing of nothing in the season of discipline

I was acquainted with a man in Pennsylvania who appeared to have two entire sets of clothes — and possibly with a special, purple-draped locale for the second set. The first was an almost year-round array of shirts, slacks and jackets. The second was notably trimmer: apparel that came out around Laetare Sunday and persisted through several weeks of Easter. Then he had to revert to the first, and larger, set.

He was one, as some readers may have guessed, who had long committed himself to a grueling Lenten fast. It was extreme by the standards of almost anyone other than St. Catherine of Siena. His Lent was an exercise in muscular Christianity. He lost significant weight for six weeks or so every year and promptly regained all of it by Pentecost.

I think of him because we’re in the midst of a season of discipline. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are good for the soul and intended to be very good for focusing on the Lord of life and of sacrificial giving. We can go astray, though, if we turn our Lenten practices into athletic competitions.

Does it really advance my spiritual life if I find myself tracking how many sizes I go down? Or, in another vein, am I doing well if I break my past record of rosaries on a trip to Columbia and back? Do I let my chosen disciplines devolve into judgmentalism? “Tsk-tsk! Mrs. X has not managed to attend as many celebrations of the Stations of the Cross as she said she would; and my classmate Mr. Q does not seem to have donated as many canned goods and volunteered as many hours hoisting bags at the food pantry as I have.”

Lent can sometimes become a quest to achieve a personal best and reminds me that such a quest is not the point. Our Lenten goals must be directed to the other. We are meant to be devout and steadfast for the sake of growing closer to God, being more gentle and generous with others and becoming less self-conscious. All of the prayer, fasting and almsgiving is noble when it truly refines us and helps us become more Christ-like.

The Lenten season, however, may not demand a challenging to-do list. In the exhibit hall of a jam-packed conference I attended in Chicago a couple of months ago, I happened upon an intriguing new book, Anthony Blosser’s “The Ethics of Doing Nothing.” It isn’t a promotion piece for slothfulness, nor is it a defense of people who claim to be protecting themselves from burnout — while their colleagues are smirking and remarking that one can’t burn out if a flame hasn’t been lit. Rather, Blosser makes the point that the observance of Sabbath and the habit of regular days of recollection and retreat has dramatically decreased in our 24/7 ever-connected world. He speaks about the healthfulness of religious and spiritual rituals of rest.

The Jesus prayer, silent sitting, moments of adoration and wordless listening: making time when our omnipresent handheld devices are stowed away might turn out to be the Lenten discipline we most need. We can pray without chatter, fast from FOMO — fear of missing out — and give our attention as alms to the Almighty.

At certain times and in certain seasons, our strong, active, other-directed Lenten pursuits can be full of doing, meaning and worthwhile. But at other times, maybe even now, maybe this month, our “best Lent ever” may spring from obedience to the injunction embedded in the Psalms: “Be still and know that I am God” (46:11).

Sister Pamela Smith, SSCM, Ph.D., is the diocesan director of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. Email her at