Lent, Soft Addictions, and Detachment

Router on Julie's desk--photo by Julie McCarty 2011I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but do the very thing I hate.     –St. Paul in Romans 7:15

I was awakened the other day by a little scratchy sound in the next room. Was it a mouse? No…maybe my husband was hauling out spring clothes? No, it was taking too long for that… Was he cleaning the house? . . . REALLY? At five in the morning?! 

When I dragged myself out of bed, I discovered the internet wasn’t working and Terry was trying to get the web up and running by unplugging and resetting various cords. 

After he left for work, I kept trying to fix it, without success. Eventually, I told myself it didn’t matter–I’m a writer for goodness sake: get to work!

But, try as I might, I was restless and jittery. How could I work without checking e-mail and reading the morning news online? I kept looking at the little red light on the router, flashing at me.

I was like a little baby who has had her milk bottle wrenched away, mid-sip. I want! I want! I want e-mail! I want to blog! I want to revise my website! Waaaaaahhh!

(So far I don’t have Facebook or Twitter accounts, and you can see why these options may not be good for me.)

While I was sitting at my desk, having mental internet withdrawal symptoms, I remembered a phrase from old-time spirituality books:  “inordinate attachments.” These are things in life that we cling to in a way that is excessive or beyond what is spiritually healthy.

Attachments are not necessarily bad in and of themselves, but sometimes they keep us from focusing on the really important things in life. For example, using the internet to do scholarly research is a good thing, but it might be an attachment if I simply cannot pull myself away to fix my family dinner.

While few people today speak of “inordinate attachments,” modern author Judith Wright communicates a similar idea when she speaks of “soft addictions.” As she describes in an interview with WebMD, “Soft addictions are those seemingly harmless habits like watching too much television, over-shopping, surfing the Internet, gossiping — the things we overdo but we don’t realize it. . . It seems like normal behavior, but that’s simply because everyone is doing it, too.” (To read the full article, click here.)

Lent is a good time to step back from our busyness and take stock of our lives. Are we too attached to some things? Do soft addictions keep us from having any time for prayer? Are there relationships in our lives that push us into doing things we know are bad for us? Do we find our attachments growing into bad habits that may evolve into the type of sin that hurts others or ourselves?

In spirituality, the opposite of attachment is detachment, the ability to let go of things. This letting go is done for the sake of a greater good. A person might detach from her fondness for eating in restaurants during Lent so she can use the money saved to feed starving children. A student who finds his schoolwork is not getting done “lets go” of chatty texting in order to succeed in his studies.

Practicing detachment is one way to open ourselves more fully to the action of grace and the presence of the Holy Spirit. We find the ultimate detachment in Jesus, who, while on the cross, opened his hands wide and let go of his life with the words, “Father, into Your hands I entrust my spirit.”

A Personal Focus for Lent

The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there. . . . Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.  (Exodus 24:12, 18)

 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights. . .     (Matthew 4:1-2)

Ash Wednesday is just around the corner, and I’m wondering what spiritual practice I might do for Lent. If you are like me, you have experienced various Lenten penances related to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving over the course of your life. Some of my experiences produced quality spiritual growth. Other times I failed to follow through or had results that were, um, a little “silly” (such as the time I gave up potato chips and ate so many chocolate chip cookies that I actually gained weight during Lent).

Waiting for Spring -- Photo by Julie McCarty 2011

One spiritual practice that has been meaningful for me is reflecting on a single word, phrase, or bible verse for the whole 40 days. For example, one year I focused on the virtue of patience. I read about patience and pondered what patience is and what patience is not (laziness or procrastination). I asked God in prayer to help me be patient. When life brought me annoying moments, I tried to be patient.

One possible pitfall of this theme approach is that I might forget to follow through for the entire 40 days, but I have found ways around that. I can post my theme in places I’ll see it, such as the bathroom mirror, refrigerator, computer screen saver or cell phone banner. I can find a book on the topic and spend a few minutes each day reading about it. I can make it a point to weave my theme into prayer time and the routine of daily living. On occasion, I’ve asked spiritual people what they think about the topic.

When making plans for Lent, it’s important—as always—to ask the Holy Spirit to inspire your choices. (Why do I always think of this tip last? It should be first!) The “theme approach” may not be for everyone.   Think about what will build your relationship with God, and what will deeper your love for others.      

May all we do glorify God and build bonds of love throughout the earth. Until next time, Amen!

Spiritual Aerobics for Lent

   If focusing on a theme doesn’t appeal to you, here are 13 other ideas:                 

  • Volunteer at a food pantry, homeless shelter, or other charitable organization.
  • Plan quality time with your children: eat together, use discussion starters, read together.
  • Organize recycling in your home in order to take care of God’s creation.
  • Visit a lonely or homebound person.
  • Reduce the amount of time spent with television, social networking, internet surfing, or video gaming.
  • Listen to inspiring, spiritual music while commuting to work.
  • Care for the body God gave you by increasing your sleep or exercise.
  • Read one book of the bible or other spiritual book slowly and reflectively. 
  • Sort out closets and donate clothing to those who need it. 
  • Teach your children a new prayer and pray it together when you gather for meals.
  • Be kind to someone you often ignore. Pray each day for him or her. Smile genuinely and listen respectfully to this person.
  • Fast from shopping for clothes (or books, electronic gadgets, makeup, etc.)
  • Visit a retreat center. If you cannot go away on a retreat just now, make arrangements to go on retreat later this year.

Spiritual Aerobics–Making Choices

Spiritual Aerobics
Spiritual Aerobics:
To go with the “Making Choices” reflection just posted moments ago

  1. Consider something in your life that feels “stuck” or undecided. What is one, small positive step you could take to move the process along? (Example: Making one phone call to gather info about the matter.) 

 2. Journaling: Think of a time in your past when you made a good decision. What helped you through the process of decision-making at that time?

(Photo credit: “Yoga” by Zdenka Darula–Dreamstime)

Making Choices: What’s the next step?

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
            Chinese Taoist philosopher Lao-Tzu
  

A number of years ago, while discussing an issue with my spiritual director, I suddenly burst out, “I wish God would just give me a recipe for my life.”           

To this, the saintly elder nun replied, “What kind of God would that be?”  

This answer caught me off guard, and since then I have pondered its meaning many times. Certainly God gives us various guidelines for the spiritual journey, but God also gives us the free will to choose the many ways in which we can express our love.  

Would I really wish that God decided everything for me? Wouldn’t that make me a puppet on a string or a computer that was just programmed to act in a predetermined manner?

 If one believes, with Saint John the Apostle, that God is love, or at least believes in living according to the ways of compassion, then it follows that we are given freedom in order to choose the many ways in which to express a healthy love for God, self, and one another.  

 What’s the next step? 

When I feel a little “stuck” in a project or indecisive about something, I consider a question I first heard about in a spiritual direction training course: What’s the next step?   

Retreat leader Pierre Wolff describes this method in his book Discernment: The Art of Choosing Well (Liguori, Revised edition, 2003, pages 27-30).  Focusing on just one step forward in love can help us keep from giving up a seemingly monumental project before we even begin. One step at a time also keeps us from expecting ourselves to have everything figured out and the decision completed within an unreasonable time frame.  

I also find that simply taking one simple step helps me keep from putting off something indefinitely. I can sort one pile of clutter rather than set myself up to clear out all the cobwebs of my house in a day (an unreasonable goal that is destined for failure). If I am feeling “stuck” in a writing project, I can ask myself, what is the one thing I could do today to move it along? If I’m experiencing a strained relationship, I can select one little way to reach out to the person with compassion.           

 A journey of a thousand miles. . .

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” This wise saying is attributed to Lao-Tzu, a major spiritual figure in Taoism. (Some say that the saying originated with Confucius.)  

I believe that it is true that the little tasks we do, the little decisions to love, the day-to-day ways we treat each other, gradually add up to something tremendous, as Mother Teresa was fond of saying, “something beautiful for God.”

However, there is another meaning to this saying that is not readily apparent in the English translation. According to the website Quotationspage.com, the original Chinese proverb can also be translated into English in this way: “The journey of a thousand miles begins beneath one’s feet,” or “Even the longest journey must begin where you stand.” It is explained that this translation means that actions are best when they arise out of stillness.  

That means, when you are thinking about a choice, or doing some action, stop to think about it first. Take a walk alone to think it over, meditate, mull it over a bit in your journal, or spend some time praying about it. Listen to where the Spirit is moving in your heart.  

Hmmm… Isn’t that what Jesus did when he went out in the desert to pray, before beginning his public ministry, before selecting his ministry companions?  

Just for today, let us ask ourselves, with the attitude of compassion, what’s the next step?   

For reflection: What do you find helps you make good decisions?