Later, I began to think that it had something to do with developing your willpower so that you could resist Satan. You took on a Lenten discipline like an exercise, to prove you had the strength to say no to temptation. Clearly, this was during my (thankfully brief) evangelical period.
Even after I got past that phase, I still thought Lent had something to do with self-denial. Not in the sense of sharing Christ's suffering. It was in a period of my spiritual life when I went overboard with repentance. Self-denial, to me, was equivalent to self-punishment, which I was certain I needed, and certain God wanted.
I broke out of that pattern after escaping from an abusive marriage. One year, I told that cruel image of God I'd created to fuck off, and gave up self-denial for Lent. It was the best Lent I'd ever had.
But I still thought Lent was supposed to be about self-improvement, or self-actualization perhaps. Maybe it was about improving my relationship with God, or even just with myself. A time to focus on my spiritual life and make it better. In those days, I really thought that was something I should do.
Once that theme developed a bit, I thought Lent was about right living. I thought that Lent was a time to put one's life into proper balance. During this period, instead of giving something up, I would take something on, such as reading, or an extra devotion, or acts of charity.
None of these things are wrong. For someone else, anyway. But it wasn't until much later that Lent began to work for me.
Lent has now become for me a time of purgation, in the most classic sense: stripping away all the barriers to my intimacy with the Divine. As I think about my need for the Holy One, I try to identify what is holding me back, what is getting in the way. What keeps me from loving, and allowing myself to feel loved, deeply and fully, by the Lover of Souls? What's in the way? Is it fear? shame? inattention? busyness? grandiosity? anger?
For me, Lent is no longer about my self-discipline, will power, righteousness, or moral purity. It's not about earning points by doing good deeds. It's not about fixing or improving anything. It's not really anything that I do. I am not the one who removes those barriers. It is an act of grace. God does it. I just have to stop resisting.
Any Lenten activity for me comes from living into God's radical, unequivocal acceptance and love for me. I ask myself, if there were no barrier to my intimacy with the Holy One, how would my life be different? What would I do? Then, I just try to go there... and live as if I knew, without reservation, that the Lover of Souls loved me.