The Constant Convert
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—a 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 we hashed out every item we ate. And come Easter Sunday, my siblings and I would suck down 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 wiser, more noble than this 2,000-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, particularly the practices that extend beyond Lent into our personal lives. 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 hierarchy 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.
Elizabeth Duffy is a freelance writer and author of the blog, "Betty Duffy." Her writing has appeared online at Faith and Family, the Korrektiv Press Blog, and numerous other venues. She and her husband live in rural Indiana with their five children.