I remember well my first Lent in a religious community in the 1980s. Most of us seminarians, like many people out in the world, gave up sweets for 40 days. The one time that this penance really came into play was during the afternoon coffee break. The nearby Au Bon Pain restaurant donated day-old pastries to the seminary, and these were typically brought out to give us a little sugar boost to get us through metaphysics and epistemology.
So, while the rest of us were wistfully looking at the full tray of Au Bon Pain goodies, one delightfully chubby seminarian walked up and started munching on a big chocolate croissant. In between bites (barely) he told me, “This year I decided to do positive penance, so I’m just going to be charitable.”
The seminarian was joking, but this did illustrate how our image of ”Lenten penance” can become skewed. With Ash Wednesday just around the corner, I thought I would point out four approaches to Lent that seem a little disordered.
Of course all Catholics are called to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and Fridays during Lent. Hence we have all the fish fries, cheese enchilada nights, and “parish soup and stations [of the Cross]” nights. If one simply went from parish to parish on Fridays during Lent, one would eat better than he or she normally would the rest of the year. There’s nothing wrong with this, and in fact, these events can have the effect of building up the parish community.
Still, the purpose of the meatless days is to provide an opportunity for self-denial, so I wonder about going out to restaurants for lobster, mahi mahi, or other seafood delicacies that are technically “legal,” but hardly penitential. For vegetarians and for those who love seafood, abstinence from meat requires little effort, and so the challenge for them–and for all of us–is to internalize both the letter and the spirit of the fast and abstinence laws.
(2) Legalism Gone Amuck
It’s always fun to see what little kids “give up” for Lent. Some of us, even as grown-up kids, have learned to work the system. We give up Diet Coke, but we can have Coke Zero or Diet Pepsi. We give up Mounds, so we have Almond Joy. We give up television, but rent a boatload of videos.
Or we’ll make crucial exceptions. We’ll give up watching sports, which isn’t too tough once football season is over, but then make an exception for March Madness or the Winter Olympics (in other words, when there’s a sporting event we really want to watch).
Or we’ll give up alcoholic beverages, but make exceptions for everyone’s birthday, baptism day, saint day, anniversary, Tuesdays, and national holidays. And of course Sundays, solemnities, and St. Patrick’s Day never count.
These are, of course, voluntary acts of penance, and at times adjustments need to be made out of charity and prudence. But sometimes we might ask ourselves how much we’re really willing to sacrifice for Our Lord.
(3) Catholic X-Games
This one is especially attractive to zealous young people who really want to “do something” for God. One year as a green “revert” to the faith I actually tried to fast the entire period of Lent on bread, limited amounts of juice, and water. I didn’t make it to Easter, and after a couple weeks I was so weak I couldn’t do much of anything.
In subsequent years I tried to moderate the penances a little more, but still went a little overboard, especially when it came to depriving myself of sleep.
Therein we see the importance of having a sound spiritual guide who can help us maintain a healthier balance in our lives, especially given our work and family responsibilities. But even more, we can’t allow our penances to devolve into mere “feats of will power” rather than loving offerings to God. It’s not about us.
(4) Catholic Weight Loss Plan
All this talk of fast and abstinence ties in nicely with the need most of us have to lose a few pounds (okay, in my case, more than a few pounds). Hey, why start a diet on New Year’s with the Super Bowl just around the corner? And why do you think they call it “Fat Tuesday” (Mardi Gras)? The idea is that we binge through Super Bowl weekend, culminating in an outlandish display of gluttony on Fat Tuesday. Even if we didn’t need to go on a diet before, we need to now!
There’s nothing wrong with losing some weight this month, and the fact that Lent provides some built-in impetus for such self-improvement can be a real blessing. The only caveat is that Lent is about 40 days of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving in anticipation of Our Lord’s suffering, death, and resurrection. We’re training for Easter, not for the Olympics or a Nutrasystems ad!
And a legitimate weight-control (and spiritual) program should be year-round and avoid gluttonous behavior.
Okay, those are a few mindsets to avoid. But how should we approach Lent?
I think how this time of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving plays out differs from person to person, and our own individual approach varies as we go through different stages of life. But one thing is sure: Whatever we do, our focus should be primarily on the Lord, and secondarily on the poor and needy in our midst.
Maybe my seminarian friend was right after all. It would be a most fruitful Lent indeed if I become more charitable–love God more, and love my neighbor more. Everything else is just (lo-cal, meatless) gravy.