US Catholic Faith in Real Life

30 years ago in U.S. Catholic: Don't let Lent pass you by

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By Ken Maafe

This article appeared in the March 1984 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 49, No. 3, pages 12-13). 

My father had an enduring love for the church and a healthy skepticism about some of its leaders’ decisions. Thus, every time he had to do without meat (in those days it was every Friday, not just during Lent), he would begin to rail against certain unnamed Italian cardinals.

“Sure, give up meat,” he would say. “Easy for them to say. They sit over by the Mediterranean, sipping their wine and dining on pasta and fish. No wonder they want us to give up meat. Why not give up fish, too?”

Warming to the topic, he would begin comparing animal species. “A chicken is like a fish,” he would announce. “Why shouldn’t we be allowed to eat chicken? And turkey? Beef is neither fish nor fowl so we should be able to eat either if we can eat one of them. It’s ridiculous.”

Then, of course, he would dutifully obey the rules. It was one thing to curse the Curia’s curious regulations; it was quite another to go against them. He mumbled and grumbled, but he followed.

So did I, but then the logic of his argument began to filter out of my mind into my actions. Indeed, why was fish okay while beef was not? It seemed capricious. If you liked fish (I did not), where was the Friday sacrifice of no steak or ham? It hardly seemed fair that I was choking down peanut butter sandwiches while Catholic gourmets were gorging themselves on trout and other seafood delicacies.

At about the same time I was putting my father’s objections into action, the church changed the rules. Suddenly, like every other Catholic, I was without guidelines to follow or even to complain about. It had all those mysterious rules about this Tuesday, that Wednesday, the odd Friday, and so on. (Meanwhile, confirming my opinion about the capriciousness of the rules, Irish Catholic priests cheerfully gave an off day during Lent because St. Patrick’s feast happened to fall then. Repentance went out the window and bars did big business.)

Now I am beginning to wonder if maybe we shouldn’t go back and pick up some of those old habits of fast, abstinence, and giving things up for Lent. The church has eased the rules while encouraging the practice, allowing for individual choice. That, of course, makes it difficult. When the church told you what to do, no matter how arbitrary the rule, it was simple. All you had to do was follow the rulebook. Now it’s more difficult: fish-eaters have to consider doing without the surf while the meat-lovers pass on the turf.

That ability to choose is one of the reasons I’d suggest we revive the old-fashioned practices of going without during Lent. There are several good reasons which were lost amid all the changes of the Vatican council. Here they are:

  • Jesus did it. This is an awfully powerful argument. If the Son of God found it worthwhile to go off into the mountains to fast and pray, there must be something to those practices.
  • We need it. We are physical and spiritual beings, and the latter is often neglected while we baby the former. Are we warm enough? Pretty enough? Full of food? The pursuit of those comforts robs us of time to pursue other goals—like spiritual perfection.

That’s why monks and cloistered nuns simplify their lives. They rid themselves of distractions so they can concentrate on the really important questions: Am I close to God? Am I following his will? Am I full spiritually? Do I pray enough?

If we’re worried about the car payments, what route to take on vacation, which cut of meat to buy at the butcher, the price of heating oil, and Tom Selleck’s mustache, we won’t have time to be concerned about the state of our souls.

Lent tells us to get away from all those worries for a few weeks, to put them aside in order to concentrate on more important matters. That means we should give them up for 40 days.

  • We have the freedom to choose. We can set up our own recipe for success. If we love fish, we can cast aside snapper and flounder. If we love other things—candy and movies were the two biggies of my youth—we can do without them during Lent.

It means we have to examine ourselves to find what blocks us from spending time with God.

  • It doesn’t hurt. The common belief is that Lent is a pain and a bother. And anyway, why should I deny myself of pleasure? It’s silly, isn’t it, to think God is happy when I am not?

In fact, we don’t deny ourselves pleasure during Lent. Not real pleasure. We should cast off things which would be good to do without: smoking, gambling, eating too much, working so many hours that we never see our families, worshipping the TV or People magazine or trashy novels.

It’s these seeming pleasures that we toss aside during Lent in order to find the really pleasurable. We are blinded to God’s pleasing presence when we cover ourselves with Marlboros, Milky Ways, busy-ness, “Dallas,” who will win the playoffs, and other fleeting pleasures of life.

When we pass on these for 40 days, we are making room and time and receptivity for God to enter.

Lent is a good idea when you stop to think about it. Its fasting, abstinence, and giving up are pretty effective ways of achieving growth in our spiritual lives. No wonder the church thought it up.

Image: Flickr photo cc by Sister72

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