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Ash Wednesday often entails funny glances aimed my way. Typically it is the old ashes on the forehead awkwardness, but my favorite instance was on one Ash Wednesday almost 10 years ago while I was a Retreat Coordinator at Xavier. That afternoon, I made my way to the Gallagher Student Center’s food court, along with Drew, my friend and co-worker. We ordered cheese sandwiches and waters.

“What else do you want on them?” she asked, oblivious to our desire for a simple meal on a day of fasting.
“Nothing ma’am.”
“You don’t want anything else? Nothing? Just the bread and cheese!?” she blurted, bewildered, wielding one of those funny glances.
“Yes Ma’am,” Drew and I responded affirmatively.

We proceeded with waters and sandwiches in hand to the stage outside of Husman Hall and ate them slowly under a cold and clear blue sky, amidst the class-changing student pedestrians. The simple bread and water surely didn’t satisfy our physical hunger that day, but we talked passionately about life, our struggles, our hopes, and about our journeys during the upcoming weeks until Easter. It was an Ash Wednesday and a Lent to remember. Maybe my affinity for the season began then.

Poll some Christians and Lent is bound to lag in popularity behind Advent, Christmas, Easter. But I love it because it has become a time for me of the deepest, most fruitful introspection of the year. It’s a time for me when I get to focus on the act of emptying my life in order to find what is essential. It is a time for me to name and conquer the obstacles in my life that keep me from knowing God, listening to God. This is the wisdom embedded in the practices of prayer and fasting and why Lent works for me. In fasting, we are able to see, with precise clarity, how we are naturally restless and for what we yearn most deeply. Prayer, then, becomes an authentic response to the whispers we suddenly hear in our lives now that the other noises are gone. The process is kind of like removing everything in a room in order to reorganize – “I can’t believe how big the room feels!” Only then can you finally let go of the ugly couch. Only then can you fill that room with what you really desire, instead of being paralyzed by the clutter.

This is why fasting from more than just food during Lent works too. During Lent I like to “give up” being in a rush. Not always easy, I try to catch myself when I am running from thing to thing, or allowing one fixated thought skip to the next without pause. When I am successful, I catch the opportunity to know God’s presence in the moment, in the mundane, in that which stares me directly in the face each day. And this is a lesson I must re-learn again and again because I continually get caught up in the rush, the pervasive obstacle that prevents me from experiencing the personal resurrections and renewals awaiting me in the Easter story. In this way, Lent liberates me from my culture that tells me I’m supposed to be here, there, everywhere. It liberates me from my own subconscious ways of distracting myself from the wisdom found in the silence deep in my heart. It liberates me from the ways I try to avoid inconvenient truth. Lent liberates me from myself.

From what might you need liberation in your own life?
A certain image of yourself that you feel pressured to maintain for others, that keeps you from your true self?
An unhealthy habit that numbs you, that distracts you from experiencing life’s depth?
A grudge with someone that keeps you from forgiveness?
An addiction to technology that consumes your life and drowns out God’s whisper?
What might you “give up” this Lent that could liberate you from yourself?

And let us ask not only how Lent can liberate us from ourselves, but also, how can we use Lent to imagine new ways to liberate the captives of our time?

Our individual spiritual journeys only matter when we connect them to a greater spiritual story. As we ponder and clear away our own obstacles to God during this Lent, how might we examine our communities, the ways we treat other as human beings, and our societal systems that feel immovable? How might we name and overcome the obstacles in our world to honoring the dignity of all people? Why are individuals still enslaved? Why, in this great, abundant world, do millions remain impoverished? Why do our systems and our ingrained habits still deny the rights of humans?

On this blog in the coming weeks, we’ll explore these questions. Follow it. Make a plan this Lent, too: Grab a friend. Go on a walk. Eat a cheese sandwich. Name your clutter. Clear it away. The space you find might amaze you. And then God will fill your soul with the nourishment that you truly seek, the nourishment of Easter.

Greg Carpinello is the Director of the Dorothy Day Center for Faith & Justice at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio.  Visit the CFJ website to learn more about the staff and their programs.