Learning to Love Lent
The very first time I gave anything up for Lent, I did it with a desperate heart: not sure what I needed, not sure what I wanted, and not sure what the whole thing was about anyway. I was raising and homeschooling three growing children, teaching literature at my homeschool co-op, running 30+ miles a week, and leading music at my local Anglican parish part-time. I wanted to do this Lent thing right. I was fairly new to the Anglican faith, and thought I knew about spiritual things. I became an expert at denying myself with food, personal time, and excessive exercise. Besides, I loved the whole idea of Lent. Musically it is where I land well with minor keys, visions of cellos, repentance, and endless wilderness. Every song I write is an attempt to make someone cry.
A Minty Obsession
Believing that I knew myself incredibly well, little did I know that I was running my body down to the nubs, wearing myself out in ways that I had no idea. One of the few things that I could not control was this pesky Life Saver’s Wint-O-Green mint obsession that I had. I know that sounds harmless, but it wasn’t. I am not even sure how it got started. One day I craved them, bought them at the store, and that was the end of it. I kept buying bags and bags to the point that I would buy them in bulk at Costco and go through several in a week. At some point, it was all I ate. I started to get picky too; I would open up a mint, and if the mint did not have the right crunch and burn and was instead soft, I would throw it away and move on to the next. I got so used to this weird way of thinking that I did it without thinking at all, and soon I would wake up in the morning with pains in my salivary glands, craving the mints before I got out of bed. I didn’t feel like myself, but I thought I knew myself.
This Lent, I was going to give the mints up. I was strong, good at self-denial, and I could shake this mint habit better than anyone could. But the thought of giving them up seized up a desperate feeling, like the thought itself was even more than I could bear. I needed those mints. I woke up every morning with a horrible tug at the base of my tongue and a jolt in my stomach. It was beyond craving. Before Ash Wednesday, I hurriedly ate up my stash in preparation for denial. The first day was hard. All I could think about was eating a whole bag of mints. The satisfaction of crunching on them and feeling a burn was so strong a temptation that I was almost wild with cravings. I tried to eat substitutes. And I lasted for days, but finally I broke down and bought a bag of mints and ate the entire thing. I couldn’t believe I had failed. It was like the instinct in my body had taken over, and I had no self-will, or control. And did I mention that through all this I was tired? I was still forcing myself to run most days, and while I was teaching my children, I would take little naps between math problems, and they would have to shake me awake to check their answers. I thought maybe I had narcolepsy, but whatever, I’d beat that too.
When I failed my Lenten fast, I finally did some introspection. I found that no matter how much I prayed to replace the mints, I could not shake the horrific cravings I had. I found that my body was stronger than my will, and even my spirit, and I had no room to listen for a single moment. Until I failed. My brain actually thought my cravings were normal up until I failed. My body unnaturally tricked me into believing that I needed Life Saver’s Wint-O-Green mints like I needed water, or food, or maybe a drug. And then I started to wonder if maybe something was wrong with my body. So like any rational human being, my next step was to Google it. I took a day researching an obsession with Wint-O-Green mints. I looked through articles, chats, columns, and forums.
And then I found it. There was someone else out there, believe it or not, that had the same thing happen to them. Their story was the same exact story of mine, except they realized it was an unnatural craving much sooner and figured out the problem: I was anemic and was having pica symptoms. Because of iron deficiency, I was craving the crunch and burn of unnatural things, ravenous and unsatisfied. The person claimed that after a month of iron supplements, the cravings went away completely. The thought sounded impossible to me, but I immediately started to take iron supplements and she was right. Almost a month later, I did not crave a single mint. And I haven’t craved them since.
Learning to Acknowledge Our Frailty
What I learned through this was that even though I believed that I was an expert at self-denial, God had other ways to show me that my human frailty can overpower my pride and self-will. I believed I was strong in my body and mind, and yet, I could not stop myself from eating a simple Life Saver. God’s grace was allowing me to fail so I could see where the root of the problem was to bring it healing. What was irrational became rational: I started eating actual food, I stopped sleeping so much, the cravings for a crunch and burn simply stopped altogether. And isn’t this what God wants of us during Lent? To be righted, to see clearly our frailty and come to Him with all of it, allowing the Spirit to restore where we are broken and diseased, to hear from Jesus himself and to know that the same strong cravings we have in our self-denial are the ones our souls have for the Bread of Life himself?
This was a very hard lesson for me and I never want it repeated again. But in this I was shown what is natural, unnatural, and even supernatural. The goal in our wilderness is to imitate the One who walked the wilderness perfectly, knowing his own frailty not by denying his humanity, but taking it on and trusting his Father. In the knowledge of my body’s broken state, I could find the tools to heal its unnaturalness and know what supernatural things to ask my Father for. It is not in self-denial that we find who we are in Jesus; it is in knowing our frailty that we know just how much Jesus himself conquered.
To learn more about Lent, check out our book: Lent: The Journey from Ash Wednesday through Holy Week, edited by Greg Goebel and Joshua Steele, with a Foreword by Tish Harrison Warren.
Featured image at the top of this post by Andrew Magill via Flickr. Tint changed toward purple.
Rachel Wilhelm is the United States Team Leader at United Adoration (ACNA) and Director of Worship Arts and Artist in Residence at Redeemer Anglican Church in Dacula, GA. She released her full-length album, Songs of Lament, in 2017.