Being in the thick of Lent, I’ve been reflecting on Lents past and how differently I approach Lent now. Lent the year I was sixteen immediately came to mind—it was the first one I approached with any type of maturity. So I offer this recollection as a hopeful reminder that life gets better and that even when powerless in addiction, even when no one understands, God truly has the power to heal.
Sixteen, what a year—many big things happened in my life, among them that I received the Sacrament of Confirmation, I was completely addicted to masturbation, and I found out that masturbation is a mortal sin. There were many life-altering events that year, but nothing was more shattering than already struggling in the undercurrent of addiction and then being crushed by a tidal wave saying I was going to hell for something I no longer had any control over. I could not let that happen. I would not go to hell. So without any resources or support or know-how, I did the only thing I could think of: I gave up masturbation for Lent.
Previously my Lenten sacrifices consisted of giving up different candies or cracking my knuckles or other such things appropriate to younger ages, but that Lent was different, that Lent I was not giving up something I loved but something I knew was holding me back from Love (and, coincidentally, love). That Lent I was scared, unsure, but determined. I also decided to begin reading the Bible from start to finish (and this has sparked my now typical Lenten routine—give something up and add a spiritual practice).
That was all well and good until my parish priest said from the pulpit that we should be in Lent together as families, that all family members should share what they are giving up or doing for Lent to keep accountable or to choose something we could all do as a family. I almost broke out into a cold sweat in my pew. My parents knew of my addiction to masturbation as “my problem” and I was not in the habit of telling them about the depth of my problem. I wanted to keep this Lent under wraps. But while I was wolfing down my omelet and cheese danish at breakfast, my mom looked at me and asked what I was doing for Lent. I scrambled and came up with giving up cracking my knuckles, swearing, and snacking between meals, to my mom’s disappointed but consenting, “Okay.” I was off the hook.
Until I went for a cookie a few hours later. Until I cracked my knuckles while helping prepare dinner. Until I cursed when I found more homework due the next day that I had forgotten about. Then I realized that this Lent was truly going to be different than any other Lent.
I quit my addiction to masturbation cold turkey and was keeping it a secret and then, as a show for my mom, I was breaking the habit of cracking my knuckles, watching my mouth (which admittedly was a very good thing), and was skipping snacks while at home (although what happened at school stayed at school). Truth be told, I remember next to nothing about those forty days. All I remember was feeling stressed, pressured, and generally out of my mind. But whatever happened that Lent, I did not break, I did not fall, and I did not give up. I did not realize until that Lent that I could be strong.
I fell back into my addiction after that Lent, but what I did gain was a thirst for truth, understanding, and healing. A thirst I have not lost today. A thirst that drives me closer to God every day. And I’m not afraid of my own weaknesses and limitations anymore because I am in love with a God who has none. When I was sixteen, I found that I was made for more than what I had been allowing myself to live in, and I wanted more life. Holiness is pure, true life. That’s what I wanted when I was sixteen and fought my addiction for the first time, and that’s what I want now. May this Lent purge us of whatever death we have been living in and open us to true life.
A version of this post originally appeared on my now defunct personal blog, The Fetal Theologian