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Lent, “Hamilton”-Style

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So we’re halfway through the third week of Lent already, and perhaps the practices that you’ve taken up are beginning to fall by the wayside. Or perhaps the earliness of Ash Wednesday snuck up on you and you still haven’t decided what practices you’ll take up for Lent this year.

If you find yourself in either boat, I’d like to offer two possible Lenten practices for your consideration, courtesy of the Broadway musical phenomenon Hamilton.

  1. Talk less.
  2. Smile more.

Throughout the musical, Aaron Burr offers these two practices to Alexander Hamilton as the means by which he can “get ahead” and distinguish himself in the political landscape; however, placed in the context of Lent, they become instructions for practicing asceticism—a way in which a person might observe the words of the psalmist: “Set a guard over my mouth, O LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips” (Ps 141:3, NRSV). Here are a few ideas on how to make the words of Hamilton your own watchwords for the rest of this Lenten season.

Talk less.

  • Refrain from gossip. Pope Francis commented in a homily on September 4, 2015 that “Gossiping is like terrorism because the person who gossips is like a terrorist who throws a bomb and runs away, destroying: with their tongue they are destroying and not making peace.”
    Instead: practice charity by mentally praying for the person you’d rather tear down, and asking that Christ will help you to love him or her.
  • Abstain from the “zinger.” It’s incredibly and insidiously satisfying to come up with and deliver that withering zinger—that final word that leaves your opponent not only defeated but completely demoralized and thereby establishes you as their superior in every way (except in the way of virtue).
    Instead: even if you’re on the right side of the argument, embrace the way of the Suffering Servant, who “was oppressed, and . . . was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth” (Is 53:7).
  • Think twice before complaining. Again. To a different person this time. Or to the same person as before. (You know, so you can have multiple validations that your schedule/life/spouse/child/parent/friend is the worst ever. It’s not.)
    Instead: cultivate humble gratitude by thinking of three gifts in your life which you’ve done nothing to deserve.
  • Turn off the interior monologue. It goes without saying that when we’re talking, we’re not listening. But even when we’re listening, we’re often not really listening; rather, we’re thinking instead about what we’re going to say next (at least that’s how I usually am).
    Instead: learn to truly listen. Listening to others is not only the first step toward cultivating meaningful relationships, it is also the first step toward healing broken relationships.

Smile more.

  • Enter into relationship. Smiling at someone is a momentary entrance into a relationship with that person. It establishes a connection with them, albeit a fleeting one, and allows you to extend an act of kindness, even mercy, by allowing you to enter into their experience, however briefly: a young mother struggling with her toddler at a grocery store, an elderly gentleman on a bus, a fellow student braving the elements trudging to class. Put the smartphone away and open yourself up to an encounter with another human being, for in doing so, you open yourself up to an encounter with Christ (cf. Mt 25:40).
  • Give of yourself. Some days I don’t feel like smiling. At all. I want to hole up in my well-insulated tower of self-centeredness, and I want everyone in my path to either give way or go away. Smiling, even and especially when one doesn’t feel like it, can be incredibly difficult, but in precisely those instances it can become an exercise in self-gift, a way of focusing on the other rather than the self. Some days it might take a herculean effort to set aside our own stress and smile at another person, but one never knows how desperately that person may have needed the gift of self extended in our smile.
  • Cultivate joy. Watching the news these days, there doesn’t seem to be a lot to smile about. It can be easy to become bogged down in the darkness, and this can rob us of our joy. A smile can be a simple way to remind others—and even ourselves—that, in the end, darkness’ days are numbered. Darkness won’t win. Even through tears, a smile is a sign of the “light that shines in the darkness” (Jn 1:5).

Hamilton offers an unlikely gift for the season of Lent with its mantra “Talk less. Smile more.” These two practices may be simple, but they are far from easy; they demand that we rise above our own inclinations and put the good of the other before our own, and cultivating this posture is exactly what the practices of Lent help us to do.

Carolyn Pirtle

Carolyn Pirtle is the associate director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy and a composer of liturgical music.