Betty Duffy

Monday, April 6, 2009

Giving up nouns for Lent

It’s always around this time of year that I wish I had given up a noun rather than a verb for Lent, some thing, some arbitrary thing that in and of itself is not bad, but would just be a concrete thing to sacrifice, so that on Easter Sunday, I can partake of it after forty days of abstinence, and mark the end of the Sacrificial Season.

It is good to give up bad habits, like arguing, for Lent. It is good to do more positive things like praying early in the morning. The only problem is that if something is worth doing or not doing during Lent, then it’s worth continuing the practice after Lent.

When I was growing up, my whole family gave up sweets for Lent. My mom did a super cleansing of everything in the house containing sugar, and if we were still hungry after dinner we had to eat something like yogurt. There was always much discussion about whether or not certain foods were sweets, like sugar free pudding—sweet or not a sweet? It has no sugar, and milk is good for you, but it tastes good. Is jelly on one’s peanut butter sandwich a sweet? Technically it’s a condiment, but it’s full of sugar.

These perennial discussions annoyed me in their legalism, as my mom and dad hashed out every item they put in their mouths—which is why, as an adult, I’ve sort of avoided the practice of giving up sweets. Not to mention that come Easter Sunday, my siblings and I would hoover the Cadbury eggs until we fell into a coma.

But here, at the end of Lent, I wish there were something more concrete to signify the end of the forty days. On Easter Sunday morning, I’m not going to wake up and say, “Alleluia! I don’t have to pray this morning!” Nor am I going to spend the day arguing just because I haven’t done it in awhile.

It seems like finding the right thing to sacrifice means finding something that has the quality of luxury. It isn’t essentially good or bad. It is just something I enjoy, of which for forty days, I will postpone enjoyment. I seek a standard of measurement and a signifier that the forty days is over and the Season of Celebration has begun. The Church in her wisdom has supplied us with practices like abstinence from meat. Do I think I’m more wise, more noble than this 2000 year-old institution when I choose some “loftier” personal sacrifice than these mere things?

When I was on the precipice of my reversion back to Catholicism, I spoke to a priest about all my questions. For every teaching of the Church, I had a "But what about (fill in the blank)?" statement to make. I kept thinking I could throw a wrench into his thinking, stump him, and in so doing relieve myself of the burden of this faith (it felt like a burden at the time).

After answering a few of my questions, and realizing I always had another complication to follow the last one, he finally smiled at me and said, "Just be simple." His words held such weight, because this particular priest was anything but simple. I'd sought him out specifically, because I knew he had an appreciation for the complexities of life.

If this particular priest could "be simple" then I had my first inkling that there was some value in the practice of obedience. Some practices of the Church may seem too trivial, too picky to be of any value. Tempting to say, "Well what does the Church know about that?" And I've so often heard obstacles to teachings of the faith framed in reference to the age and gender of the heirarchy of the Church. "What do a bunch of old celibate men know about marriage?" for instance.

The fact is, they don't have to know anything about marriage, though they frequently prove quite wise on the subject. Either the teachings of the Church are inspired by the Holy Spirit, or they're not. If they are, then my obedience to those teachings will be blessed with the light of faith. In practice, comes understanding.

And in this case, as is so often the case, my nonconformance to the standards set by the Church has left me with an empty feeling in my gut, here at the end of Lent.

(P.S. BY NO MEANS am I trying to dismiss the reason on which the teachings of the Church are based. Only saying, if I don't understand it, I'm probably complicating it--because the teachings are so reasonable.)


Kristin T. (@kt_writes) said...

I love this idea of giving up a "noun," and how the purpose of that is to "postpone enjoyment" for 40 days. It does seem so simple when you put it like that.

I have given up cream and sugar in my coffee before, which feels very appropriate each time I take a sip and the bitterness of the coffee hits my tongue.

I think there are a few examples of "verbs" that can be given up for Lent and then "let go of" on Easter. One year, about nine months after I left a church, feeling very hurt, I gave up my bitterness at those people who had once been my Christian community. That involved setting up a time during Lent to meet with each of the four people I felt most hurt by, to talk and reconcile, and offer forgiveness. Then I was able to celebrate Easter as a new beginning, with the weight of that burden no longer on me.

Kate said...

I think your question hinges on what the point of the sacrifice is. If it's just to deny yourself a pleasure for 40 days (and then to binge until you've made up for all those lost chances) then a noun makes sense. But isn't the point of the Lenten sacrifice to purge our souls so that there's more room for Christ, and for joy at His presence with us? And a verb seems like the better way to do that, unless you're REALLY attached to your chocolate. :)

I don't think that the delayed gratification of enjoying something you've been denying yourself should be the source of our joy on Easter morning, or should even be too much tied up with our joy. That works for kids who can't grasp much more than that, but is it enough to be that simple as an adult? I know we should strive to be childlike in our approach to God, but I don't think of that command as an obligation to retain an immature faith.

Betty Duffy said...

You raise good points. I agree that the purpose is to purge our souls to make room for Christ, as you say--but I don't think that the delayed gratification issue is a mark of spiritual immaturity (glad you raised the challenge btw--I can't think of anything substantial enough to post that could compete with Holy week--so thinking this whole idea out a little more might be the ticket).

Anyway, I think the delayed gratification works as an outward sign for the liturgical season. It's a measly human way to live in the desert for forty days.

I wouldn't say that my joy Easter morning is so much tied up with gorging on whatever I gave up (though--admittedly, it once was). But having that thing that was denied for forty days now available marks the change in Season from denial and sacrifice to celebration.

Maybe I am childlike, or just human, that I like physical indicators of change in liturgical season. I like the change in colored vestments. I like the covering of statues and crucifixes, and then their reveal on Easter morning. I like to say 'Alleluiah' after I haven't said it for awhile. I like the positioning of Easter in the Gregorian Calendar so that it usually coincides with Spring in the Northern hemisphere. I like to deprive myself of candy, and then to eat it again on Easter Sunday. And then, I like to set the table with good dishes and chew on a ham.

Why are all of these signs necessary to increase my joy in the Risen Christ?

I guess they're not. I just like them.

Or no, actually...Easter NEEDS Good Friday. We need to lose something in order to appreciate it. I need to feel challenged somehow in my relationship with Christ--and while adding prayer commitments and going to more MAsses, yadda yadda, is GOOD--I need to give up something for the man who gave up everything for me.

And this year, in spite of my intentions to grow closer to Christ during Lent by purging myself of bad habits and increasing spiritually enriching activities--I wish I just gave something up.

Emily said...

One of the beauties of Catholicism is that it doesn't deny the power of the incarnation - everyday things can be sacramental. Happy Easter! Bring on the Cadbury eggs!

Katherine said...

Giving up something very arbitrary can be a great goad to 'purge one's soul' in spiritual sacrifice, especially if you will let someone else choose what to give up for you. I have been amazed at the lengths my mind will run to in order to avoid giving up something very simple and not particularly desirable in itself out of laziness or sheer perversity. Giving up something as simple as chocolate means that you will be forced to confront your own weak will and lust for self-indulgence at every turn. 40 days spent noticing how weak one's will is over such a small temptation as chocolate can lead to a much greater understanding of the relationship of our selves to God: that we must trust God to help us always because, if we can hardly bear the annoynace of having to do without chocolate for just 40 days, what might we do if we were faced with a really grave temptation? Then, too, when at the end of Lent, one can suddenly have what one wants again, it is a great reminder that God loves us and wants us to enjoy life.
So, it seems to me, giving up something simple may not really be all that simple.

Kate said...

Betty/Emily, you're both right about the sacramental nature of the simple sacrifices, and that since we are souls in bodies (not merely souls with psyches), it is proper to have a very carnal (? does that have sexual connotation? I don't mean it to) Lenten experience. And Katherine, I like your point about how simple sacrifices, though they don't SEEM like they should be hard, are more than enough to show us the weakness of our wills! Very true. And Betty, I too gave up a verb, and I know I could have done a more perfect job of giving up a noun - it's so much easier to miss a chance to sacrifice your verbs, because those are usually omissions rather than commissions. Anyway, I've decided for next year I'm going to do one of each. You convinced me! And I think I see what your priest friend meant about "be simple," although I don't want to completely abandon the more complex approach. I think they can work in concert.

Betty Duffy said...

Kate, et al,
I think they do work in concert. A good point indeed. And Katherine touched on something that I think I've been unwilling to admit out loud, which is that giving up nouns forces us to confront our laziness. And maybe, I've been sheltering my laziness from the light of day by hiding under a more complex, and verbal approach to Lenten sacrifice.

Not saying this is the case with everyone who favors verbs for Lent.

At the heart of my conflict is a quiet refrain: "I've already given up so much. I sit here alone with these kids all day every day. How could I possibly continue to do so without chocolate?" But maybe I could find some other source of joy. My problems, after all, are the problems of someone who has been given too much rather than too little.

Kate said...

I know I should let this post die, but I was thinking about it on Easter Sunday, and had to write... I want to clarify my defense of 'verbs'. It's not so much that that type of sacrifice makes for a more complete purge, but that the purge fertilizes our soul for new growth in God. Reflecting on, and giving up, the 'verbs' which keep us from God yields a fruit of spiritual self-awareness that 'nouns' cannot. (Or can they? Maybe, but they haven't worked that way for me in the past.) I know reflection and spiritual growth shouldn't be limited to these 40 days a year, but the Lenten season DOES seem a perfect backdrop for this kind of pruning of the soul. We can look at our lives, see what's most strongly strangling the latent holiness within, and remove it - slowly and painfully at first, but then hopefully forever! It's a way to die with Christ over the season.

I think my conclusion is still that it's what you want to shoot for in the season. Giving up a noun reminds us of our life WITHOUT the Savior, dead in the tomb and gone from us, but to be reunited Easter morning. Giving up a verb reminds us of our life BEFORE the Savior - wandering in a spiritual desert with no hope of Heaven... and then of course it reminds us of our life which is to come because He has come.

Anyway, those were my thoughts while I stirred ham glaze! Happy Easter, everyone!

Betty Duffy said...

Good thoughts, Kate, and let no post die! I love comments.

I hoovered the sweets on Easter, even though I didn't give them up for Lent, so much so that it was probably a sin, and I couldn't sleep that night due to high blood sugar jitters and intestinal problems--so I'm not sure that giving up nouns or verbs had anything to do with that problem. Compared to how much I ate on Easter Sunday, the relative consumption of the prior forty days could only look like a famine. So stirring the ham glaze in Indy, or the cream cheese icing for the carrot cake, as was the case, I had already begun to drift into a coma and Lent was a hazy memory. Have I mentioned I ate a lot on Easter?

Anyway, I think you made a good point, that the verb approach requires mindfulness, an awareness of what's at stake, and any obstacles in the way of "latent holiness." I like that. And I can see how the noun approach could become rote. One either eats everything in sight, or one eats nothing. Makes the sugar debate that mom and dad had at every meal seems sort of mindful.

Melanie B said...

This is a fascinating post and discussion. I hope you'll excurse the very late post-Lent response; but I'm just so intrigued by the idea of nouns vs verbs. I'd never thought of it in those terms before.

This year, as I have once before, I gave up reading both novels and non-religious non-fiction books. Since I'm a bookworm who reads several books a week on average this is a big one.

I'm not sure if it's a noun or a verb, though. Am I giving up books or reading? There are noun aspects in that like binging on chocolate on Easter I have the experience of picking up a book I've been waiting for for 40 days (I made sure there was one I'd had on my wishlist for some time waiting for me) and indulging in glorious book gluttony.

But it's also verbal. For me reading novels while neutral in itself can for me become a bad habit when I overindulge. It can suck me away from prayer and spiritual reading, from spending time with the kids and from duties like housekeeping. I make a point of not just giving up novels but of replacing them with a huge stack of spiritual reading. I try therefore to replace a bad habit with a good one. I hope that by the end of the 40 days I've gained a bit of moderation, worked my way through some worthwhile books, spent more time in prayer, and am perhaps able to exercise more self control in being able to put a novel down and do other things I need to do.

(I discovered your blog via Darwin Catholic and am enjoying it.)

Betty Duffy said...

Melanie, Welcome to the discussion. And I love it when a post has a long shelf life, so thanks for commenting.

Reading for me can also easily become a sin--because that fantasy world is almost always more interesting than making dinner. And if it's not, you can just pick up something else.

It seems that your sacrifice is two-fold. There's the self denial of a morally neutral (for the most part) noun, in giving up novels. And then there's a practice (or verb) that you've adopted of doing more spiritual reading.

I think you have the right idea, of incorporating both noun and verb. If you had just said, "I'm going to do more spiritual reading this Lent," without the noun component, do you think it would have had the same effect?

Melanie B said...

Hmmm.... As a matter of fact last year I tried to just do more spiritual reading and it didn't seem as effective. But it's a bit like comparing apples and oranges. I had a pretty off Lent last year in general partly because my daughter was due a couple of weeks before Easter and it was hard to focus on any kind of Lenten sacrifice knowing there was almost nothing I could promise to do that I'd really be able to stick with the entire 40 days. I read Pope Benedict's Jesus of Nazareth and a couple of other books but was so brain foggy most of the time I'm not sure how much I got out of them. Would it have been more focused if I'd not been reading novels too? Would it have focused my resolve and tightened my discipline or was it really just the exhaustion of the last weeks of pregnancy getting in the way?

I do think that this Lent was better (though I'm pregnant again this baby isn't due till July) and more focused. Though I still had issues with focus. And not giving up chocolate because when Lent started it was actively helping with morning sickness led to my eating far too many of my daughter's treats while she was potty training. I think maybe I should have given up chocolate this year.

But to come back to your comment, I do think the combination of noun and verb is more effective for me. I like the childish joy of indulgence in a treat put off at the end of a long fast and I like the verbiness of a habit put on. It seems to be a good balance and keeps me on a more even keel.