This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  March 7, 2008

A Compact Lenten practice


The skies here in Minneapolis this winter are as leaden as the piles of roadside snow. Our cars and our boots are coated with salt film. After a brief interval of Mardi Gras Obamoptimism -- Barack Obama, that delegate of hope, won two-thirds of our caucus vote and 48 delegates here Feb. 5 -- our seasonal sluggishness has once more set in. Indeed, our Minnesota midwinter is the perfect invocation of Lenten austerity.

Just as Obama’s idealistic message must be grounded in strategies for accomplishing the change he preaches, our diet of Fat Tuesday cheer must fortify our commitment to exercise everyday action to live the spirit of the season, that is, to let go of patterns of behavior that keep us in wintry despair.

This year, my family has decided to observe Lent by participating in a six-week version of “The Compact,” an informal manifesto popularized a few years ago by a group of young San Franciscans who avoided buying anything new for one year. The idea is that purchasing doesn’t equal patriotism, and our spending shouldn’t measure our self-worth.

It is OK to acquire stuff by borrowing, bartering or buying secondhand. Exceptions are made for socks and underwear. I would wager my family will make it for a month and a half on current inventory. We’ve modified our agreement to exclude do-it-yourself items including home repair materials or things needed for handmade gifts.

Each member of my family has his or her own cross to bear as we engage in this experiment in abstinence. My 15-year-old must possess 50 T-shirts, so for her, avoiding local haunts like American Apparel and Urban Outfitters is the cross. My 17-year-old son wonders if iTunes songs are part of our Compact. They’re not exactly material goods -- but they’re about all he spends his money on. The youngest sweetly wonders whether she is allowed to make a contribution to a class gift for her teacher. I say yes. My husband is least affected by our Compact. He’s the guy who brought the More-With-Less cookbook to our marriage and the one who will have his shoes resoled and trousers mended again and again before he’ll consider buying a new pair.

Me, I recently found myself caught between my own personal Scylla and Charybdis in the form of glossy magazines strategically placed to lure bored shoppers who have inevitably picked the longest grocery checkout line. To my right, the aptly named women’s magazine More, and, hmm, Redbook looks revamped these days, maybe worth a read. To my left, ooh, Budget Decorating, which needs no explanation; and of course, Real Simple, which it seems you’d be if you didn’t buy it, but … well, it’s a paradox, I guess. It’s not the light reading material that’s so bad, though that falls outside the parameters of our plan. It’s the near occasions of sin, specifically the ads and page spreads of clothes and beautiful rooms that inspire lustful thoughts of new rugs and lamps, shoes and handbags.

Not ogling a magazine, not buying a new T-shirt, not padding the playlist -- not such a big deal. But we’re hoping that these small measures of freely chosen (not climate-induced) austerity add up to bigger changes in our ability to live our family’s values as people of faith who contribute to healing and hope in a country seeking a change of heart.

Kris Berggren writes from Minneapolis. She can be reached by e-mail at

National Catholic Reporter, March 7, 2008

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: