Monday, March 21, 2011

Lenten Disciplines

By Maria Boccia, PhD
Professor of Pastoral Counseling and Psychology
Director of Graduate Programs in Counseling Charlotte campus

We are in the middle of the Lenten season and as I approached writing this blog, I thought about all the different ways I have approached this season and the tradition of fasting in the past. Having grown up Catholic, fasting meant abstaining from meat on a variety of designated days such as Fridays and certain feast days, such as Ash Wednesday (although for many this meant eating fish instead, our family ate pasta & lentils or peas). During Lent, we all decided what we would give up for the 40 days. The fast may have involved food, such as giving up chocolate, but sometimes focused on other time-consuming and pleasurable activities, such as watching TV. The focus was on sacrifice; giving up something you enjoyed.
If you read theological discussions of Lenten disciplines, however, it is a little more complicated. Catholic theologians see fasting as a form of penance. Among Protestants, the focus is more on discipline with the purpose of becoming more spiritually minded, more aware of God. In both cases, there is the idea of personal discipline, particularly of the body, as a way of reminder of or means to growing closer to God and developing spiritual muscles.
As I was considering this Lenten season, I realized that it is very easy to use the discipline as a means to my personal ends rather than for spiritual growth and focus on God. I struggle with weight. If I give up certain kinds of foods, will I be able to keep my mind on the spiritual discipline or will I be anticipating weight loss? The discipline here would become a discipline of my mind: can I do the bodily discipline and maintain the spiritual focus? And as I reflected on that, it occurred to me this is true of all Lenten disciplines. Whatever we do with our bodies, we must keep the spiritual focus.
I recently came across the concept of “self compassion.” This might sound like just another way to say self-centeredness or selfishness or self-focus. However,
Having compassion for oneself is really no different than having compassion for others. Think about what the experience of compassion feels like. First, to have compassion for others you must notice that they are suffering. If you ignore that homeless person on the street, you can’t feel compassion for how difficult his or her experience is. Second, compassion involves feeling moved by others' suffering so that your heart responds to their pain (the word compassion literally means to “suffer with”). When this occurs, you feel warmth, caring, and the desire to help the suffering person in some way. Having compassion also means that you offer understanding and kindness to others when they fail or make mistakes, rather than judging them harshly. Finally, when you feel compassion for another (rather than mere pity), it means that you realize that suffering, failure, and imperfection is part of the shared human experience. “There but for fortune go I.”
Self-compassion involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. Instead of just ignoring your pain with a “stiff upper lip” mentality, you stop to tell yourself “this is really difficult right now,” how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?” Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings
- Kristin Neff, Associate Professor of Human Development and Culture at the University of Texas at Austin
I find myself making a very similar case to clients with whom I work who have very poor self-esteem or self-valuation. I reminded them that God values them enough to send Christ to die for them. Not just for other people, but for them as well. I can agree with them that they have done nothing to earn this value. It is about being not about doing. It is because God in his sovereignty chose to place his love on them. They are valuable because he values them. Therefore, I encourage them to be kind to themselves, to show some compassion to themselves.
So as I was thinking about Lent, I decided that my Lenten discipline this year would be to give up self-criticism. If I am this valuable person whom God has chosen, if I am one for whom Christ died, if I am one for whom God has shown mercy, then I may show mercy to myself. Even as I would show compassion to one of my clients, so too I can show compassion to myself. I am an imperfect, broken sinner, wounded by myself, my own sin, and by the world. I can choose to continue to wound myself with critical self thoughts, or I can choose to agree with God. Through nothing I have done, he has loved me and given me value. God’s grace forgives my inadequacies and encourages me to become the person he intended me to be. That person is one who shows compassion for others yes, but also towards myself and my failings. Because, it is God who is at work within me both to desire and to do his good pleasure (Philippians 2:13).

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