Last weekend’s NYT article about why many people who don’t affiliate with a religion have jumped on the Lenten bandwagon got me thinking: it’s been a while since I posted one of my Great Defenses of Lenten Commitments. It’s time to remedy that, wouldn’t you say?
The whole community does it
In a way, I do this for the same reason I watch The Biggest Loser. It gives me something to talk to my mom about. Every year my mother and I make the same commitment (no snacks) in addition to whatever else we decide to add or omit for the season.
Because I have a Catholic family and Catholic job, and live in a very Catholic neighborhood, my whole orbit is infused with this cycle of sacrifice and celebration. But Even if these other elements weren’t in place, I would still have my parish and the (less immediately tangible) Church throughout the world and throughout history with whom to share my fast.
I need to practice discipline
I’ve said this a million times before, but crisis doesn’t create character, it reveals it. The day is going to come when I need to be disciplined about something more serious than whether or not I should eat the donut in the faculty room or have a glass of wine with dinner. (As I write it occurs to me that my diagnosis of an Inflammatory Bowel Disease made those very decisions more serious than they might be at first glance.)
When I break my routine for 40-ish days, it prepares me for whatever might come to shatter my routine in the future. I pray that this practice of discipline when it matters less will serve me when it matters more.
It sanctifies the time
If a liturgical season falls in the spring and no one cares to observe it, does it really exist?
If we want our seasons to be holy some of the burden falls on us to make them so. We have to be the ones to make the time special, if we want it to be. A great lover of the liturgical calendar like myself is going to go all in to commemorate this sacred, ancient season. Heck, sometimes I even give something up for Advent.
Annual reminders of what’s good for us are healthy
You know the expression “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good”? I think that applies here. Sometimes the Lent-haters are critical of our sacrifices because they think we should be able to be hyper-virtuous all the time. To them, I will offer the response that my favorite confessor gives when I try to confess something and he wants to let me off the hook: “You’re not a robot!”
There are always going to be slip-ups. There are going to be nights when you’re just too tired to do any sacred reading, or an afternoon when your hunger leads you right to the peanut brittle from which you had hoped to fast. We buckle down during Lent to remember what it feels like when we don’t slip up all the time, so that we are more likely to do the right even when the liturgical clock ticks into Easter.
I like to show off (sort of)
That “sort of” refers to it being a reason for Lenten practices, not to my desire to show off. I definitely like to show off. By changing my behavior and lifestyle during Lent, I hope to be providing a witness to all of the things I have already mentioned. I hope to show the world that I think discipline, commitment, community, and penance are valuable. Who knows? Maybe someone will ask me about what I do and I’ll have a chance to evangelize (or at least to direct them to my blog).
NOT to show off
But…but…you just said you DO show off! Lay off all right? I contain multitudes.
There’s a tough line between being a witness and being a show off, and most religious people fall on one side as often as the other. If I believe that making Lenten commitments makes me a better person (than I was previously) does that mean I think it makes me a better person (than other people)? Not really.
When my observance becomes a stumbling block, I know I’ve gone too far. Similarly, when I am the stumbling block, and my observance is linked in the minds of those around me with my own lack of virtue, then I’m in trouble too.
NOT to keep God from getting angry
Maybe I should have done this first. Let me debunk one of the most common myths about giving something up for Lent. This myth, usually held by those who assume that all religious people are at the lowest stages of moral development, is that we who change our habits during Lent are doing it to appease an God whom we fear.
Nothing happens if you accidentally have a piece of gum even though you gave it up for Lent. God will not smite you with a thunderbolt or add your name to the naughty list. I’m going to go out on a limb and speak on God’s behalf, saying that God does not care if you have gum or not. God cares that you grow in faith and virtue, however you may accomplish that.
For me, one of the ways I accomplish that is by observing the pillars of Lent. What are your reasons for doing so, or for not?
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My reasons are a sticky mush of most of what you wrote. I was thinking, “because sometimes making yourself miserable has some kind of value.” Because misery from simply selecting to avoid what is really a luxury is a great way to enforce discipline, and I listen to my desire for discipline better when I give it up for God. I’m horrible at dieting, but I’ll avoid fast food if that’s what I’ve given up. (Though I really am going through the wringer this year, I don’t know what gives but I find I really spend a lot of time reminding myself that I can’t up and have French fries.)
It becomes a kind of a present and vibrant limitation. If I may, it’s kind of a stale limiter to say I don’t like to find myself even tempted to lie. I fought that fight long ago and tell untruths rarely all because of the wrongness of it. I don’t feel hemmed in by that. I don’t feel the immediacy of the discipline of honesty (or respecting others’ property, or the inherent dignity of others, etc). But a new rule – and the fact that I imposed it rather than it being scored on a rock! – reminds me that the things I promised God as his child are alive in me.
I must admit, sometimes the thought also comes “I can quit whenever I want to.” And it feels like this is the time that I can show …see, see?? I can go without! But that’s hardly quitting – instead I’m seeing how the things I’ve given up are so deep in my routine I’m practically biding my time until I take them up again. That doesn’t seem to be in the spirit of Lent but just an effort to wait out a disruption before things return to normal. And really if we’re just hoping for Easter because that’s when things go back to normal, isn’t that the definition of doing it wrong?
Love these reasons. And I think your last paragraph demonstrates the wisdom of these practices more than anything: even when we’re “doing it wrong” (which I don’t think we ever are), we’re still somehow doing something right.
Don Sartain says
“I’m going to go out on a limb and speak on God’s behalf, saying that God does not care if you have gum or not. God cares that you grow in faith and virtue, however you may accomplish that.”
Love this. The whole point of the liturgical calendar is to help teach and disciple, not to observe rituals to please God.
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