Welcome to Lent, possibly the least favorite season in the Church year. We spend most of it feeling guilty because this is the time when we focus on our sins -- the things we do that make us feel separated from and out of sync with God. Guilt is an appropriate feeling if we have acted in ways that, deep in our heart, we know are not in accord with God's will. But it's less helpful if we become preoccupied with our shortcomings and end the season with little more than a sense of our unlovableness. If that's the case, our focus isn't on God, the source of our life, the love of our life; it's on ourselves. Even if the self we're thinking of is one we consider unworthy, we're caught up in an experience in which we, rather than God, are front and center.
The aim of Lent is to bring us back into a loving, open relationship with God - in a word, reconciliation. We repent, turn away from - give up - go without, the attachments that claim our attention above all other things, and separate us from God. But we don't just turn away from them for 40 days. The goal is to turn away for all time. When our attachments replace God in our affections, and that's a problem. That's idolatry.
Gerald May, in Addiction and Grace, says, "The major traditions* of the world proclaim in unison that such false gods must fall away from us. We are called to grow toward that point at which nothing other than God will be our god. However short-lived or minor our concerns for something other than God may be, when we give it more priority than we give our concern for God and God's will, we commit idolatry." ( p. 30)
The Year of Giving Up Sugar (around 1980) was an example of idolatry. I had decided to give up eating sugar as a spiritual discipline, only to discover that Life As I knew It was loaded with sugar. It was an ingredient in every recipe, a condiment on every table, an unexpected companion to the tomato in my spaghetti sauce. For awhile, I actually became obsessed with not being able to have sugar; it was a god for me. I was cranky with others, angry with myself, always on the lookout for the beloved I could not have. My friends rejoiced at Easter - not because the Lord had risen, but because my sugar fast had ended.
In a larger sense, being human means always choosing between things that we may want, but can do little for us, and the things that are lasting, and give us life. Jesus worns his followers against laying up treasures on earth where moth and rust easily consume them, or thieves can break in and steal -- in other words, things that cannot last -- urging us to love God with all our being instead (see:The Summary of the Law). In Lent, we "come away" from our everyday life and experience the wilderness of our desires and cravings and ego-messes, with God at our side, loving us even while showing us the less lovely parts of our being. And when the 40 days are over, we return, leaving the unloveliness behind.
Other articles on Lent you might want to read:
* A quick look into Hindu and Buddhist beliefs,for example, bears this out.
Hinduism combats attachments to unsatisfying things through the spiritual practice of yoga, which means "yoking" ourselves to God. "Pleasure, success, and duty are only approximjateions of what we really want ...[W]hat we really want is those things in infinite degree. ...This brings us to the most startling claim of Hindu anthropology....That which we most truly want, we can have. ...Underlying the human self..is a reservoir of being that never dies, is never exhausted, and is unrestricted in consciousnesss and bliss. This infinite center of every life, this hidden self...is no less than...the Godhead." (from Huston Smith, The Illustrated World's Religions p. 22)
Buddhism calls our desire tanha -desiring personal fulfillment,even at the expense of others. Greed is tanha. --we want money for ourselves, even if it means exploiting others. "These deamdns bring usffering, becuase the law of life calls for seeing others as extensions of ourselves, not our rivals. ...If we could be released from the narrow limits of self-iterest into the vast expanse of universal life, we would be relieved of our tormment." (Smith, p. 71 )