Here's my advice: Don't give up chocolate for Lent this year. Or rather, give up chocolate - or whatever else you give up - if it helps you think about God more often. But if all it does is make you think about chocolate, then let me suggest some other Lenten practices to you.
In the sixth century, St. Benedict wrote a "guidebook" to living in a monastic community, a document we know today as The Rule of St. Benedict. "The life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent," he wrote. In the next sentence he gets a bit more realistic. Since not many have the strength to live Lent all the time, Benedict advises us to "wash away the negligences of other times."
What most of us neglect- with more regularity than we might care to admit - is God. So this Lent, instead of giving up chocolate, give up neglecting God. Here are a few ways for doing that, all of them straight from ancient and contemporary monasteries. I know - you're not a monk or nun! And I'm not suggesting that you start going to church seven times a day during Lent or wearing black robes and hoods. But you might be surprised at how much there is to learn from monastic life, even for those of us who live secular lives. But don't try to follow all of them or you'll end up just paying attention to your Lenten discipline - instead of God.
Have a heart-to-heart with God
"Pray temperately and simply. Prayer is a heart-to-heart talk between yourself and God and needs no brilliant ideas, no flood of words" (The Jerusalem Community Rule of Life, Jerusalem/Paris, 1978).
Take some time out for a long walk, or go to a quiet place you enjoy and just have a heart-to-heart with God. Put away all your notions about trying to impress God by being brilliant or by using carefully chosen words. Pretend you're talking to a friend you've neglected and say what's on your heart. Don't forget to do some listening as well.
Cut back on work
"By choosing to work as hard as possible, but not more than you ought, not primarily in view of a perishable end but one that lasts forever, you are to stand free and challenging in a world where work has been overrated into a religion and often into a sacred cow" (The Jerusalem Community Rule of Life).
"The hermit listens to his body, giving attention to health, exercise, work, proper diet, fasting and leisure. Because the Holy Trinity dwells within him, making him a 'Living House of Bread,' he nurtures and cares for the gift of his body and the sacredness of life" (A Way of Desert Spirituality: The Plan of Life of the Hermits of Bethlehem, Chester, N.J., 1998).
Scripture tells us that our bodies are God's temples (1 Corinthians 3:16). So do things to take care of one of God's dwelling places this Lent: Get enough exercise. Eat better. Take time for leisure and play. And do it in the knowledge that you are caring for one of God's great gifts and nurturing the sacredness of your life.
A recent newscast reported that Americans actually added a week of work to their schedules in the 1990s. Many of us put work at the center of our lives, rather than God. Take a break from working too hard this Lent. Work a reasonable schedule, but not more than that. Spend some of that new-found free time with God in prayer, personal reflection or spiritual reading.
"Our feeble flesh could not possibly be defrauded of the whole night's rest and yet keep its vigour unshaken throughout the following day without sleepiness of mind and heaviness of spirit" (The Twelve Books of John Cassian, Marseilles, c. 420).
Having a good relationship with God takes energy and attentiveness, something John Cassian, one of the desert fathers from the fourth and fifth centuries, knew well. He advised getting enough sleep so they could vigorously pursue their spiritual lives. Make Lent a time for getting rested so you, too, can attend to God without the heaviness of spirit that lack of sleep induces.
Give up annoyance
"Don't be irritated by the brother who sings off-key" (Rule for a New Brother, Brakkenstein Community of Blessed Sacrament Fathers, Holland, 1973).
Can you imagine standing next to a brother who sings off-key, and having to do that three or more times a day, for the rest of your life? But that's just what this monastic rule, or guidebook, suggests. Just for Lent, try to avoid being annoyed by others who do things differently than you would. See if you can find Christ in that brother or sister who "sings off-key" and see what difference that makes in both of your lives.
"Trusting in the Father, Christ chose for himself and his mother a poor and humble life, even though he valued created things attentively and lovingly. ...[S]eek a proper spirit of detachment from temporal goods by simplifying [your] own material needs" (The Rule of the Secular Franciscans, Rome, 1978; based on Francis' rule, 13th century Italy).
Most of us own much more than we need. All too often our sense of self-worth and confidence rest on how much we own, rather than on knowing ourselves as God's beloved daughter or son. Take a Lenten break from buying unnecessary things. Give the money you would have spent on that CD or silk blouse to an organization that feeds the homeless or shelters the abused. Let your money do something good for some of God's other beloved children.
Pursue God through study
"Our pursuit of knowledge is an expression of love for God's world and the riches of revelation. ... Since our gifts and ministries vary we need to encourage one another to value not only reading and study but many other ways of learning, every method that helps us become more responsive in heart and mind to the whole creation" (The Rule of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, Cambridge, Mass., 1997).
St. Benedict decreed that every monk be given a book to read during Lent. Find a book that opens up your relationship with God and read it through, either by yourself or with a group. Or find another way to study God's world. Take a course. Visit an art exhibit. Go to a concert. See a movie. Do these things with the intention of learning more about God's world and the riches of revelation.