29 March 2023

Messed Up Your Lent? You’re Not Alone!

'Ye sober and ye slothful, honour the day. Ye that have kept the fast and ye that have not, be glad today. The table is full-laden, delight ye all. The calf is fatted; let none go forth hungry. - St John Chrysostom, in his Paschal homily.

My Lente practice for years has been to abstain from meat every day but Sunday. Each year, I come closer to making it. With just 11 days to go, I've slipped only once. At the funeral lunch for my dear friend, Tonya (R+I+P), I took some pasta salad that I thought was meatless. It turned out that it had bits of pepperoni in it.

From Catholic Answers via the WayBackMachine

By Drew Belsky

It's hard to get this whole 'penance' thing right.

This time of year, we get a lot of questions about the whats, whens, and whys of fasting and abstinence. And we have many answers, all of which will inform you how to fast and abstain well. Here, in the interest of trying something new, I offer four ways to fast and abstain . . . poorly . . . and how to beat them.

  1. Procrastination.

. . . and that’s why this article is being published in the fourth week of Lent. Procrastination takes many forms!

Those of us who have waited until now to pick our Lenten penances can at least double our devotion to them in the short time we have left. Holy Week is a great time to do that anyway.

Then we can start thinking about next year. Step one is not to let Lent take us by surprise. A great way to prepare is to observe the three-week “pre-Lent” season of Septuagesima. This period was suppressed in the Mass of Paul VI, so you’ll have to find an Old Rite Mass for the Sundays before Ash Wednesday. (Good luck.) Or you can do the readings at home with a 1962 missal, or online.

  1. Ascetical streaking.

Let’s take a totally random, spontaneously made up example: the guy who won’t shut up about the difficulty of the traditional fast. Everybody at the fish fry is just trying to enjoy his breaded pollack, nagging himself to stop wishing it were a cheeseburger, and here’s Mr. Trad nattering on about frustulums (frustula? frustulae?!) and collations and “fleshmeats” and please Lord just pull a Numbers 26:9-10 right now—not on him, but on me, if that’s what it takes to get me out of here.

The problem is that a guy who goes on this way—and who definitely is not and never has been this author—can’t help but telegraph how he’s doing things. He broadcasts how proud of himself he is. He strips off his humility and runs naked across the field of Lenten penance-doers, hoping the cameras are rolling. Not only is that just the worst mental image I can think of, but it’s also dancing pretty close to “they have received their reward” (Matt. 6:2).

To that guy: Keep your clothes on. There are people who will inevitably know that you’re fasting and abstaining, because it’s what’s expected of Catholics this time of year. And there is a much smaller number who will inevitably know how you’re fasting—the members of your household, for example, or your spiritual director. That’s fine. But does it really need to go any farther than that?

We can join together in corporate penance, generally, without doing an exhibitionistic run across the field. That means no broadcasting the things we’re giving up for Lent.

  1. Just straight-up idolatry.

Oh, Häagen-Dazs, how do I love-need-can’t go without thee? Let me count the ways. The calf whence thou came is gold, indeed (Exod. 32:8).

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve desired a frozen consolation after a bad day, or done a good job and felt I deserved a chocolate peanut butter reward, or grabbed a pint to forget about something that was bothering me. During Lent, I remind myself that there’s a name for when people relentlessly gravitate to a substance for reward or consolation or distraction. It’s just usually applied to a different kind of pint.

Lent is the perfect time to sniff out your personal idol—the thing you just cannot go without—and smash it (Exod. 32:20). In our enlightened age, it’s not going to be a golden calf, or a creepy stone monolith, or an egret with the head of a meerkat . . . but it could be ice cream. It could be sex. Or—God preserve me from the flying stones to come!—it could be my coffeemy coffeemy coffee.

This is a way to assure ourselves that our fasting is working—by raw bodily discomfort, sure, but more than that, by the self-denial of that particular thing we “can’t go without.” If there’s any time of year I’ll be moved to throw the ice cream away, it’s now, God help me. This could be the time for spouses to put St. Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians 7:5 into practice, “by consent, for a time, that you may give yourselves to prayer.” We can also use this time to (a) ease up on the coffee and (b) still be nice to people.

Yes, we really can go without. It’ll sanctify us.

(I recognize that I’m flouting the previous point by exhibiting my ice cream struggles. But I’m pretty sure Catholics are magisterially bound to forgo delicious ice cream during Lent, so we’re all corporately doing it together. That’s got to be in the Code of Canon Law somewhere, right?)

  1. Exception-ism.

It’s good to be exceptional, right? Not when it’s Lent, maggots (Ps. 22:6)!

Every one of us is tempted to come up with some reason why we can’t fast. I’ve heard of women desperately pregnancy-testing their way out of Lenten penances—and wished I could use that excuse instead of rushing to “I’m too sick” the moment a sniffle strikes.

So maybe you are pregnant. Maybe you just turned sixty, or your eighteenth (or fourteenth) birthday isn’t for a few weeks. Or maybe you have a debilitating everything-but-meat allergy that flares up only on Fridays. “Low blood sugar, huh? Yeah, it’s a curse.” Maybe, like me, you think you ought to qualify for a fasting exemption every time the stock market wreaks havoc on your adrenal system.

Certainly, there are legitimate exceptions to the Church’s rules for fasting and abstinence. So it’s not belonging to one of the exceptional categories that’s a problem, but rather the trying-so-hard to get into one of those categories, or worse, making one up, like the sniffles category. Yes, we’ll fulfill our obligations with no penances whatsoever while too young or too old or too sick or too pregnant to fit within the penitential norm. But how much better to turn it around—to want to sacrifice, even when we don’t have to? That’s how Jesus did it.

This isn’t to say we must engage in radical penances, though you’ll find many great saints, like Thomas More, Ignatius of Loyola, and Thérèse of Lisieux, who did. For our purposes, it’s enough to take on a mentality of making ourselves, if not just like those great saints, then at least more like them, whatever our current state of life or health may be.

There you have it: four ways to face-plant during this holy season, plus some thoughts on how not to. May we shun these four fervently—as fervently as I’m shunning my freezer. Only seventeen days to go.

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