Last Lent, as a seasonal penance, I gave up listening to most music. Then, for personal reasons, I decided I wanted to try to extend the penance to the end of this year. Though I did not succeed in that, the attempt at a long penance was still thought-provoking. Here is, in brief, what it meant for me in both personal sacrifice and growth.
To provide some background, I’m a lifelong musicophile. I love my favorite songs so much that I would say there’s nothing like the joy of listening to them in all the world. Thus, this penance probably sounds pretty intense. However, it was a deprivation of secular music, that is, all music not specifically intended to praise God. Thus, I allowed myself both praise and worship music and traditional hymns, which made it at least a little easier.
In the second place, I’m a natural warbler, and will normally just start singing in the midst of ordinary everyday activities. This I thus attempted to restrict in the same way—sing, but only religious music.
Now, for the first few weeks of Lent, I would have said that in spite of the annoyance of stopping my singing mid-song line multiple times a day, I was gaining a greater appreciation for the beauty of sacred songs. Most of the time if choosing between them and a wide variety of secular ones I tended to skip the sacred, so I hadn’t purposefully listened to much religious music in quite a while.
However, as time went on (and I continued to refrain from relaxing my penance on Sundays, a difference from every other Lent of my life) I began to go through a bad case of withdrawal, not to mention continuing to stop my singing only felt more frustrating as time went on.
Although I think I did cheat occasionally, I made it to Easter all right. After Easter was when things got incredibly hard. No one I knew was also doing penance and I wanted music badly regardless. In June I went through a period of what felt like weeks (possibly less in reality) where I was utterly miserable and thought music would have cheered me up when nothing else could, as indeed it did later.
Thankfully that dark period ended, but things still didn’t get easier. The psychological effects of this penance ran the whole gamut, from just wanting the ordinary physical joy of singing whatever song came to mind, to a Sunday afternoon when I felt very happy and knew a favorite song would make me feel even happier, but I refrained, to a day that I wanted music so badly it felt like there was a gaping hole in my head.
Finally, after months of struggling to hold to the penance, I gave it up in September at the advice of my spiritual director. In spite of ending it prematurely, I did learn a few things, so in the hopes of helping someone else, I offer them here.
I Appreciated Music More
As I said, at the beginning of the penance I was enjoying religious music more. But, in the later months of the penance, when I started cheating occasionally, I noticed the cheat songs were having a greater immediate positive effect on me then, when I heard them rarely than previously when I listened to them at will. Furthermore, I don’t believe I had fully realized the importance of music in my life until I was without it. In fact, the primacy of it for me now makes me wonder about when I was a young child and only listened to cassette tapes in the car; perhaps I’m simply spoiled.
The Great vs. The Real Lesson
Whether I am spoiled or not, the best lesson I think someone could get out of such penance is that God asks difficult things of us in this life, and we should wait out the suffering and obey. However, I don’t really feel that this lesson applied to me—after all, the penance was voluntary, and I had received multiple suggestions to relax it even before discussing it with my spiritual director.
One thing I did learn, at least in some measure, was a greater humility, in thinking at first that in every single day, no matter how dreadful it had been for me, I could do entirely without secular music. Certainly, there were some times when it was better for me not to have it, as on the above mentioned Sunday when I was already happy. Other times, though, it might be considered a form of pride to think I would still withhold music if I felt I needed it as badly as one needs water when thirsty.
Thus, I might summarize my lesson as learning that, though hard penances done with love are greatly beneficial, it can also be permissible to cheat or even let go of them, at least in circumstances like mine. Finally, I now hope never to take my beloved music for granted again. For His own reasons, God made me someone who dearly loves music. Hopefully, I can learn to use that love well, even when I’m not giving music up.