Allie Hanson was sitting in a coffee shop when she found herself eavesdropping on the conversation between two men at the next table. The topic: What they planned to give up this year for Lent, the 40-day Catholic ritual of self-sacrifice that begins March 1.
Hanson, 36, is more interested in Buddhism than Catholicism these days, but she was still intrigued. "I thought, 'What can I give up to improve myself?' " says the Los Angeles landscape designer. "I liked the idea of doing a group challenge."
Hanson exercised regularly and ate healthy. Her biggest downfall was wine, especially those big bold reds that helped her unwind after a long day. She hoped that observing Lent would help her find better ways to cope with evening stress.
Although Lent is one of Catholicism's most solemn rituals, its observance is growing in popularity among the secular set.
All you have to do is check out Facebook to notice an uptick in people who rarely set a toe in church suddenly giving up Gummi Bears, texting and Diet Dr Pepper.
"I think this is a positive trend," says Rev. Greg Peters, an associate professor of medieval and spiritual theology at Biola University who studies religious practices. "It's always good when humans look at their lifestyle choices and give up a negative habit. It's good for the heart and spirit."
Peters says the practice of giving something up has also been adopted by many Protestant religions. "It comes out of a legitimate need to modify behaviors to be healthier and feel closer to God. It creates space to think about your life choices and think, 'Where have I put God in the hierarchy of things?'" he says.
Yet if you're not religious, it's also valuable to view Lent as a chance to distance yourself from American materialistic culture. "Let's say you give up social media. It helps you focus on human connection, maybe care for the less fortunate and just become a better person," Peters says.
In years past, Chellie Campbell, 68, a Brentwood financial literacy author and observant Catholic, has sworn off smoking, stage fright, envy and high heels for Lent. But in these politically trying times, she plans to stop chastising others with different viewpoints. "There's something delicious about being angry at other people and making them wrong," she says. "I will have to give up my self-righteous holier-than-thou attitude. The calmer and more rational I can be is better for me and society."
Alissa Zito, 36, a communications executive and longtime Lent observer from Playa del Rey, is giving up gossiping — but also adding daily prayer and community service. "I wanted to be more mindful than giving up something like chocolate, which is an excuse to go on a 40-day diet," she says. She too has noticed more of her non-Catholic friends joining in the ritual. "For them, it doesn't have religious symbolism and is a chance to make a new commitment to abandoned new year's resolutions," she says.
The original intent of Lent, which was developed in the fourth and fifth centuries, was to fortify one's relationship with God, oneself and the poor by focusing on prayer, fasting and alms-giving. "Traditionally people have given something up," says Father Allan Deck, professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University, adding that Judaism and Islam have similar rituals. "We prepare to enlarge our hearts to love God and our neighbors by learning to make little sacrifices. Lent is about getting outside of oneself."
As for what to give up, there are no rules.
"It should be something that means something to you," says Deck. "It should be something difficult." In other words, it doesn't count to give up coffee if you don't really like it in the first place.
Another important principle is to practice Lent as a community to gain strength by suffering together. The modern-day version has become the collective "Look at what I'm giving up this year!" brag-fest of Facebook. "We didn't talk about it when I was growing up," says Zito. "But sharing on social media can inspire others to consider participating in this time of reflection."