Lent for the Reluctant Ascetic

Lent for the Reluctant Ascetic January 26, 2016

I grew up in the days before Velcro. By persisting to the age of five or six in not knowing how to tie my shoes, I drove my mother to desperate measures. One morning, she snatched the bowl of Life cereal out of my greedy little hands and informed me that I would not be getting breakfast until I learned to tie my shoes once and for all.

O reader, how I wish I could report to you that I bent over my Trax, double-knotted the laces like a little champ, and strode forth (having precluded any chance of breaking my neck) to conquer the world. Instead, calculating from experience that weeks or months might pass before I ate again, I melted down like a Nazi before the Ark of the Covenant. My mother saw she was licked. Cursing under her breath, she handed me back my Life, which by then had congealed into a sticky-sweet mess (which was exactly how I liked it).

And so the rest of my life, small “l,” has gone. Whenever pleasure is offered me gratis or drifts fortuitously into my reach, I grab it and hoard it, because I know I’ve got a snowball’s chance in Scottsdale of earning more in any licit fashion. In my mind’s eye, I see myself hanging on by my very fingernails to a cliff marked “SENSUAL DELIGHT,” below which is a yawning abyss whose name would be “CEASELESS, FRUITLESS TRAVAIL.”

Thomas Aquinas, of course, distinguished mere pleasure from happiness, which consists of exercising virtue and contemplating God through reason. I figure once I master those tricks, I can limit myself to one raisin and one Netflix movie per week. In the meantime, I use Lent as a chance to test myself – to see how much ascesis Brother Max is up to this year. Now, with nine penitential seasons under my belt, I can plot a curve.

2007: Internet discussion boards. Remember those? They were my Facebook before Facebook. Anyway, I came through with flying colors, partly because my long-distance sweetheart read the best exchanges to me over the phone, like Mayor LaGuardia reading out the funnies during the newspaper delivery strike.

2008: Booze. Went smoothly, but then I was still only a weekend drinker. On the night following my baptism, I threw a huge party for my sponsor and his friends. Felt encouraged when, even after four shots of Ketel One and a six-pack of Hoegaarden, I was able to resist the overtures of my sponsor’s cute lapsed Mormon neighbor who crashed the party in an even sorrier state than mine.

2009: Booze.
Again, came off without a hitch. The promise of breaking the fast later on with my friend Rick livened up that year’s Good Friday service. Whenever I read Teresa of Avila on loving God but preferring God and chocolate, I think of that day.

2010-2012: Booze, booze, booze. These were the lost years. At some point between 2009 and 2010, it seems, I slid down the slope from hearty partier to drunken sot. Each year’s renunciation lasted mere days, if that. The first year, I pulled a switcheroo, deciding that what I’d really meant to give up all along was all-you-can-eat buffet restaurants. I can’t be sure whether I even bothered with such a pretense during the two subsequent years – my recollections are just too fuzzy. All I remember is slamming shots of Sky vodka and Mickey’s Big Gulps in front of my computer and trying to assuage my guilt by watching YouTube clips of papal funerals.

2013: Booze. Result! This time I just about managed – it was, in fact, the beginning of the end of my drinking. It would have been the end of the end, had I not allowed Rick to shanghai me to his house in mid-March for cocktails. After that forgettable evening, I went right back to renouncing.

2014: YouTube. Turning from this time-waster was easily enough as long as I was at home. When I arrived in Turkey, the day before Holy Thursday, I discovered the government had banned it indefinitely. By the time it lifted the ban, about six weeks later, I was climbing the walls, pining for all the occidental culture captured in those videos. Arabesk music and soccer just couldn’t keep me going.

2015: Diet Coke. This was my major caffeine source. I was teaching ESOL at the time. My resolution lasted through one class.

The lesson is to be found in the pattern of success and failure. Until 2010, I was a salaried employee. That salary wasn’t great, but it sufficed for my needs and then some. As long as I didn’t have to stress out wondering where my next fun was coming from, giving up little pleasures felt more like a game. After I started freelancing (being paid, in many cases, off the books), austerity came to feel like an ominous new normal – worth the freedom it bought, perhaps, but not easily doubled down on without triggering any hissy fits.

My finances haven’t improved overmuch since those days, but clearly something has. Maybe my brush with problem drinking scared me straight. Or maybe I’m pumped from the satisfaction of having conquered it and eager for more triumphs. (Swearing off Diet Coke strikes me in retrospect as sheer cockiness – the sort of stunt Johnny Knoxville might attempt, were he enter the Church.)

These days, I get most of my pleasure from long-distance running, and have arranged most of my eating habits to support it. Even cigarettes – down to from 40 to four a day, supplemented by nicotine lozenges – are less an indulgence than a prophylaxis against exhaustion and anxiety. There’s just not that much left to give up. Maybe I really am learning to find happiness exercising virtue and reason and whatnot, but I doubt it. More likely I’ve learned that doing without things is a good way of having to earn enough to afford them.

I may not have learned to tie my shoes, but I have managed to shrink my stomach. That’s something.

This year? I’ll probably do YouTube again. It’s something I like just enough to miss. But it’s free, and Obama hasn’t put it under any interdicts yet, so it’ll be there waiting, come the Triduum. Evenings till then will feel like cereal without milk.

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