Betty Duffy

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Giving up Nouns for Lent

(rerun: April '09)

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.)


saintos said...

Spot on.

Lynn said...

I gave up drinking anything but water for Lent. This is my first time to try anything like this, and like you wrote, I didn't want to give up something bad or start doing something good. It has been enlightening, to say the least, to see what happens to me when I choose to restrain only one, minor appetite.

Tari said...

This is our first full Lent in an Orthodox church (we wandered in last year in the middle of it, of all times!) and we are not yet church members nor are we fasting this year. However, last week when we went for our usual post-church lunch and I asked my husband our of the blue if he wanted to fast next year and he practically yelled "YES! DEFINITELY!"

So I hear you. And, unbelievably, this man in my life for 20 years who until we wandered into that Orthodox church had no faith, hears you too. You are right: the blessings of a church with long-standing wisdom and traditions are not to be discounted lightly.

Dawn Farias said...

I agree with so much in this post. I like how you phrased nouns vs. verbs.

Sally Thomas said...

I like that, too. My husband has always given up coffee, alcohol, and chocolate for Lent -- for years, before I began to be more serious about it all, I used to say that my penance was living with someone who had given up coffee, alcohol, and chocolate.

That year I wrote sonnets for my Lenten discipline was instructive, and not, in the way you describe. It was a great discipline in lots of ways, but then I couldn't stop, which meant that the next Lent I sat around asking myself, "So . . . sestinas?" Then I was back to living with the guy who'd given up all the fun stuff. Now I just give it up with him and try to do a better job of praying, but how to live Lent continues to be a real question mark.

By the way, and this is a complete non-sequitur, I'm having a totally random little blog carnivalette on the theme of reading -- specifically, the kind of reading I tend to do, which is to pick up a book, read a chapter, be fascinated by it, set the book down, and not remember it again until some time the next year. So I did a post entitled "What I Learned This Week by Opening One Book," and I included one of those little linky widget things so that other people can add links to similar posts of their own. Anyway, you and any readers here are cordially invited to participate -- either write a new post on something you've read this week, or pull up an old one that speaks to the theme, and link to it in the widget here:

I like the idea of drinking nothing but water. Most of the time I don't drink enough water -- wonder if my soul would be as hydrated as my body?

Sally Thomas said...

Oh, wait, my link should have looked like this.

BettyDuffy said...

Sally, I love the book carnival. Today and yesterday both I started interesting books that I'm not going to finish. I hope I have time to write something up.

Actually, maybe next year for Lent I should go back to my old ways of not starting a new book until I've finished the one I'm reading. A couple years ago I realized that I didn't have to finish a book just because I started it, and it has revolutionized my life--but it is the rare book that gets the cover to cover treatment around here.