Today begins the awesome and holy season of Lent. When Ash Wednesday hits we tend to think, “O no, now I have to give something up.” But Ash Wednesday and Lent are so much more than that. It is a time of preparation, a time of freeing ourselves from the things that bind us and moving into a deeper relationship with God, our family and friends, and the Church community. It is a time to celebrate the gifts God has given us, to examine how well we live those gifts, and to clear away the things that prevent us from being the gifted person we are. What’s not to love about that?

Our wonderful Catholic tradition gives us many different ways to do some Lenten spring-cleaning in our lives. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the top three. They are things that should already be a part of our lives but during this time of Lent we pay more attention to them and give them a greater space in our lives.

Often fasting gets a bad name. We do the venerable and cool tradition of fasting a disservice when we equate it with “giving something up” which is how I approached fasting for most of my life. My “give-up” of choice was the innocent donut. It never hurt anyone, but still I spurned it throughout Lent. I don’t think that this really did any good for my spiritual life. Eventually I learned more about fasting in a variety of religious traditions as well as an overall aesthetical practice, a spiritual discipline. I realized that fasting is not about denial but about freedom … freeing ourselves from the things that bind us and keep us from right relationship with ourselves, with others, with creation and with our God. Fasting from food is one form of fasting. We eat simply (if at all) and only what is necessary. This has a profound effect on the body and frankly feels very good. It also lends itself to a clearness of mind. Just as our body and mind are affected, so also is our spirit. Our fasting from food is a way of simplifying, getting down to basics, clearing oneself to be in a place of openness, receptivity. It gives us a chance to take stock of where we are in our life and what we need to do to continue to grow in life and love.

On this Ash Wednesday, and indeed throughout the entire year, I would like to suggest something I learned from my friend Bill at Dying Man’s Daily Journal. It’s kind of a form of almgiving, one could say: practice some random act of kindness today. When driving through the toll booth, give the person a few extra bucks to pay for the guy behind you. Be creative. Be random. Be an anonymous angel. Read the many entries and comments on Bill’s blog to see what kindness really meas. Kindness is a wonderful “discipline” for Lent for both you and the people whose lives you touch.