Lent 2021: What America’s editors are giving up (or taking on) this year
The last year has been one of loss. We have lost jobs and school and money. We have gone without hugs and handshakes, grandparents and parties. Most tragically, we have lost hundreds of thousands of lives—many of us have lost some of our closest and most beloved companions on life’s journey—all without access to the traditional rituals of mourning.
The season of Lent gives us space to reflect in a new way on the suffering that has resulted from the Covid-19 pandemic. The traditions of prayer and fasting and almsgiving help us to unite our own suffering with the suffering of Christ. But after a year in which we have already given up so much, one could be forgiven for asking: Do we really need to give up chocolate, too?
We asked America’s editors and staff for their thoughts on how to make the second Lent of the pandemic feel fruitful when, after an exhausting year, it too often feels that we have nothing left to give.
I think people have given up enough this year, in terms of lives, health and money. In fact, I can’t think of another year in which so many have sacrificed so much in so many places. God always welcomes our sacrifices, if they’re done out of reverence for and a desire to undergo a metanoia, or conversion. But this Lent, God might be just as happy if we spent more time in prayer—one-on-one time with God. And a counterintuitive Lenten practice would be to commit to calling to mind what you’re grateful for every day. This is part of the Ignatian examination of conscience, but in this case it’s focused on simply being thankful. Every day, why not think of three things that you’re grateful for? Call them to mind, savor them and thank God for them. Even in the midst of a pandemic, in the face of personal stress and during the season of Lent, God is offering you love, mercy and compassion every day. Take time to notice it. And let your heart expand in gratitude.
James Martin, S.J., editor at large
This year has been one of extreme social isolation, which has been tough for me as an extrovert. In an effort to ward off the loneliness (and avoid anything that leaves me alone with my thoughts, like prayer), I’ve been watching a lot of TikTok. Who needs quiet time when you could have a never-ending stream of videos algorithmically tailored just for you? Last week, in an effort to prove that I wasn’t totally addicted, I removed the app from my phone and ended up revisiting some of my favorite spiritual poets, like Rainer Maria Rilke and Hafez. Reading their poems felt like having a long, slow conversation about God with an old friend. While I probably won’t give up TikTok, I’d like to spend more time with God in poetry this Lent.
Colleen Dulle, assistant producer
At first I started to write, “ I do too much! Do less!” But that’s really not the answer. My life is full. I’m editing for America, writing plays, promoting a new book, working with Crown Heights Mutual Aid, engaged in faith sharing groups, mentoring young men and heroically (and awe-struckedly) wading through 900 pages of Infinite Jest. It’s all good stuff. What I would like to do is give up the unreflective, one-after-another way I sometimes do these things. I’d like to be more mindful about my life; to end the day remembering that the day had something to do not with just “fulfilling tasks” but meeting the divine—no matter how mysteriously—in all that I do.
Joe Hoover, poetry editor
In a year in which I have had more reasons to pray than perhaps any in recent memory—for help, for guidance, for patience and even in gratitude—I have found it very difficult to do so. Like everyone else, I am exhausted. I am stressed. I worry that when I turn to prayer, God might ask something more of me, when it feels I have already given every ounce of energy just to get through from one thing to the next. But I also know that in avoiding prayer I find myself drained in different, more soul-wrenching ways. This Lent, I want to put a renewed focus on my prayer. And I want to be generous about what that means. I will make no requirements about the style or length of the prayer, just that it must be daily and intentional and that I bring my whole self to it. This Lent I will stop holding God at a distance.
Kerry Weber, executive editor
This Lent I will stop holding God at a distance.
Every time Lent rolls around and I begin to think about what I am “doing,” I’m filled with dread and weariness. I burned out on anything resembling faith-homework years ago. But I still have some positive regard for intention-setting. Unlike a discipline or goal, intentions do not force me to quantify or monitor my progress. No one is keeping score, and if I fail to hit the mark one day, I can resume my practice the next. So with that in mind, my intention is to get more rest. So much more becomes possible when I am rested—that is, when I get at least 8 hours of sleep, limit my screen time and engage in deeply restorative activities like walking, cooking, talking with a friend or taking a long bath. And I believe God can accomplish so much more through me when I am not running on empty. So this Lent I will be gassing up.
Maggi Van Dorn, producer
Everything has changed in this year of Covid-19, including our spiritual lives. For some, it meant holding fast; while for others, it has been a time of unmooring. For the great majority of us, the experience has been somewhere in-between. For Lent, the usual practices don’t seem to apply, as so much has been involuntarily “given up.” What can we do? When Pope John Paul I (Albino Luciani) was a boy, his mother taught him this prayer, the sentiments of which he adhered to throughout his life: “Lord, take me as I am, with my faults and with my sins, but make me become as you wish.” Perhaps we could make this our prayer as well. In it, our faults are offered up to God along with the good that we do. We may not know what our efforts lead up to, but we can trust God will make something beautiful out of them.
Joseph McAuley, assistant editor
When I was 20, a college sophomore, I was suffering from early-onset something. Kidding. I was just exhausted out of my mind. And ceaselessly anxious. As our own Joe Hoover S.J. writes in his new book, O Death, Where Is Thy Sting?, “A Jesuit priest once said that most spiritual desolation is fatigue.” These pandemic days, I still feel like that wrecked kid, and I think God has always been telling me that God really wants me to be O.K. That’s a step toward being Christ in the world. If I can help myself to be a little more O.K., I can probably help someone else to be a little more O.K., too. That does mean giving something up: the late nights. When I tried this at 20, the first night of Lent brought my first and only nightmare episode of sleep paralysis. The devil wants you to be exhausted.
On top of sleep, a bonus practice: Thanks to the recommendation of our director of photography, Deniz Demirer, I’m going to read The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky for the first time, before Easter. “Read it right around Easter,” he told me. I’m a pretty good listener.
Erika Rasmussen, Joseph A. O’Hare Fellow
The devil wants you to be exhausted.
The most abiding advice I’ve ever received is also the counsel I’ve least heeded. “The routine will set you free.” Those were the enlightened words that a Jesuit priest offered me as I started my Jesuit training almost 15 years ago. Routine has never been my thing. Or that’s what I have always told myself. If I’m honest, I admire (more like envy) those who plan their days meticulously; daily checking off their to-do list of prayer, workout, work, cook, clean, watch series, squeeze in another workout and even manage to take on an online course. How do they still manage to get to bed by 10 p.m. and rise sprightly the next day, to do it all over again?
I have often tried to lead my life with such mechanical efficiency, but despite early energy and success, I run out of steam: fail one day and then the next—and quickly give up. But in my limited success at getting a routine down, I have noticed something: It usually falls apart at either end of the day. When I am able to resist the late-night urge to doomscroll in bed and check Instagram, and when I go against my inclination to hit the snooze button, the routine isn’t actually such a chore. As we begin Lent, in a year where everything has been off kilter, I invite you to join me in honoring the wayback words of the sage who once gave me the key to freedom. Let us charge our phones at the other end of the room (or in another room altogether), far from the bed. Rather than sliding our fingers down the length of our screens, flooding our heads and hearts with the distressing morning news reports, let’s first say “Hello!” to Jesus.
Ricardo da Silva, S.J., associate editor
I have never been great about giving things up for Lent; so unlike, well, the entire rest of the planet, I’m definitely not among those who might consider themselves off the hook this year. I have beaucoup buckled Lents to make up for.
And even when I was successfully giving something up, I usually had an eye on a personal gain of some sort. So for example, back in my smoking days, that meant surrendering tobacco for Lent, because it turns out that stuff is bad for you. I never tried to give up drinking because I like to make commitments that are in the realm of the possible.
During my child-rearing years, which, per my Dad’s example, apparently don’t end, I’ve tried to be mindful of my own worst paternal habits, like blowing my top with my kids. Giving up wrath for 40 days could be hit or miss, but some years I did achieve a mindfulness that often lasted minutes past Easter. So, yes, I plan to have another go at that this Lent.
But in a year during which many have given up so much, it’s also true that some of us have gained a few things too. And this Lent I plan to make time to appreciate those things. For me, working from home and forgoing the dread Manhattan commute has been a major, unanticipated bonus. No, there have not been heart-stopping epiphanies or magical resolutions of various inter-Clarkian conflict. There has just been so much more time, time to experience my kids in day-to-day interactions and conversations, time to enjoy glimpses of humor, kindness, wisdom or devilishness and the millions of mundane moments I missed out on during 10 years of Manhattan commuting.
I’m pretty glad to have had this Covid time together; I would not give it up for anything.
Kevin Clarke, chief correspondent
I have beaucoup buckled Lents to make up for.
At its heart, Lent is about making sure that we strengthen our relationship with God. That’s easier said than done, of course. This Lent, I’d urge everyone to take this time to re-evaluate their relationship with God. Find ways of growing closer to him. Find ways to be a better Christian, even when we’re all constrained in the confines of our homes. Find ways to be the person you know you should be. It’s easy to fall into vice and sloth when no one can see you. Challenge yourself to make sacrifices, to do the hard things, to be better, even when you’re outside the view of others. Then we can start being the same people we are in the light even while we are still in the dark.
Kevin Christopher Robles, Joseph A. O’Hare Fellow
I am not a positive person by nature, and I am usually frustrated by the way our society frames positivity as a value. When I hear someone pay another a compliment like “she’s always smiling,” it feels a little bit wrong; it’s hard for me to imagine that anyone is always smiling, mostly because I know that if I always had a smile on my face, that would be disingenuous. Usually, I am prone to analytical thinking and (incessant) talking about the things that are wrong in the world, a little part of me believing that if I analyze a problem within an inch of its life, maybe I can make some meaning out of it. But as a pessimist with a high tolerance for sad talk, even I have been exhausted by the constant negative conversations of the past year. I’m still not partial to a “positive spin”; I don’t think it does any good to pretend that we aren’t facing isolation and loss every day. The reframing that I will try this Lent, though, is about hope. The present is a mess, but I am going to try to turn my thoughts to the future, to how things can and will be better in the months ahead. Easter promises that to us, and I’m challenging myself to hope for the gifts that are still in store.
Molly Cahill, Joseph A. O’Hare Fellow
I went to Catholic school for 12 years and feel guilty when I miss Mass, even during a pandemic, so it should come as little surprise that I take a conventional approach to Lent. I give up something, and for the last several years it has been the same thing: beer. It is a tradition I inherited from my father, who made this sacrifice every year. (Though Sundays didn’t count for Dad, of course. And St. Patrick’s Day.) This year, I have every reason to skip it. Who could argue with me, a home-bound, father of two small kids, if I decided to keep to this small routine? (Miller Lite, mostly, with the occasional I.P.A. mixed in.) But Lent always reminds me of Dad, who passed in 2006, and this year I need that memory. When the kids are stubborn. When an unexpected bill arrives. When tomorrow seems like anything but another day. So like Dad, I will skip the nightly pilsner—and pour myself a glass of wine.
Tim Reidy, deputy editor in chief
I will skip the nightly pilsner—and pour myself a glass of wine.
At the risk of sounding like that person who answers the interview question “What’s your greatest weakness?” with a cop-out like “I work too much,” I think I might work too much. Or at least I don’t not work enough. Like many people, I have been lucky enough to work from home over the past year. But like fewer people, I live in a studio, which means my office is also my bedroom, living room, dining room and kitchen. Wherever I am, I can see my laptop and hear that Pavlonian Slack notification, and it’s not like I have anything better to do during a global pandemic, so I might as well get a headstart on tomorrow’s tasks. I love my work, so this has worked out just fine over the past 11 months. But I do worry about what I’m not making time for when I hop into a Google doc at 8 p.m. to make edits on the third-to-final draft of Joe Hoover’s meditation on mindfulness. Like bingeing “Bridgerton.” Or praying.
So this Lent, when the workday is done, I will turn off my notifications, hide my laptop in my closet and make some time for myself, for the ones I love and for God.
Ashley McKinless, executive editor
I found out Lent was around the corner last week and almost burst into tears. What am I supposed to give up for Lent when I have absolutely nothing else left to give? It really felt like God was asking for too much from me, more than I was capable of giving. So instead of agonizing over what to give up or what to add to my life, I decided my Lenten practice would be to live intentionally, to be present to what the day was asking of me and nothing more. I’m really good at worrying about all the things that are yet to happen but not so great at relishing the present moment. This Lent feels like a really good opportunity to spend time in the now and offer that day, each individual day, to God.
Vivian Cabrera, assistant editor
This Lent, the thought of giving up something else just seems so daunting this year. As a working mother trying to juggle the countless Zooms, endless meal making, virtual schooling, nonexistent alone time and social events, I can’t fathom giving up my self-indulgent vices—a good IPA beer or sweets. Rather, this Lent, each day I will identify and write down three things I am grateful for. Some days will be far easier than others, but I know that each brings me countless graces—even those marks from Sharpie markers on the walls.
Heather Trotta, advancement strategist
Almost a year ago, at the end of the pandemic’s first Lent, I said in an Easter Sunday homily for my Jesuit community that we could draw courage from the example of Mary Magdalene and the other disciples who went back to the tomb, even before they had any idea that they would find it empty. The strength of the Resurrection was alive in their faith before any concept of it had clearly entered their minds.
As we approach the beginning of a second Lent under pandemic, my prayer is still there, asking for the courage to hold onto faith in the face of so many unknowns. And so what I’m trying to give up—or better, to discipline in myself—this Lent is the drive for immediate certainty. When will we get vaccinated? How soon until it’s possible to travel? Can I go see my family? When will things get back to normal?
The only honest answers, right now, to these deeply important questions are: We don’t know. Not quite yet. Sooner than when I asked yesterday.
So I’m trying to live with that “sooner” as a promise and a hope, a dependence on God’s grace, rather than grasping at the latest news story as if it’s an answer, a hostage to my own need for certainty. Practically that means, both when I get up and when I go to bed, turning those unknowns over to God, praying in gratitude for all those who are working to bring those answers closer and praying for faith even as we don’t know yet how close they are.
Sam Sawyer, S.J., senior editor
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