As I’m writing this it’s halfway through Ash Wednesday, definitely not too early for your Lent to have already gone off the rails.
Okay? So pick yourself up and try again.
There’s something about Lenten discipline that I think we don’t talk about enough: Obedience.
I think this because I hear from people every year who wrestle with how to do Ash Wednesday or how to do Lenten Fridays or how to do Holy Week or how to do the whole forty days, and their problem isn’t that they aren’t sure what the instructions are. Their problem is that they feel the instructions are a poor fit.
- The rules say abstain from meat, but they are already vegetarian.
- The rules say to fast by eating only so much, but they already only eat that much.
- The rules say fish is okay, and they really, really love seafood — all the seafood, not just the expensive stuff — so how is that a penance?
Or, conversely, the rules say that due to age, health, or state-in-life you’re excused from the rules . . . and that just seems like too easy of an out.
So here’s what: The prescribed communal penances of the Church are ordered towards obedience.
Follow the rules (including the rules about exceptions-to-the-rules if your health requires it) and you’ve done the thing. You’ve denied your own self-will and instead conformed yourself to a discipline you did not choose.
I don’t know as many Orthodox or Eastern Catholics as I do plain vanilla Romans, but I know a few. There again, even though the rules are much more demanding, they are still ultimately ordered towards obedience. You’d personally get more out of giving up _________, but instead you’re being asked to abstain from food and drink that would otherwise make up a perfectly healthy, sane, non-indulgent diet.
I don’t say it’s easy. This time of year I am very happy with my lot in life as a Roman Catholic. But look even at the part where you speak to your priest about how to adapt the fast to your state in life: It’s an exercise in letting go of your own will and heeding the direction of someone who is not you.
Some of you are good at following the rules that apply to you. They are comparatively easy for you, either because you are genuinely more self-disciplined than average (for whatever reason), or because you simply aren’t that interested in the things you’re not supposed to be doing.
Not a problem. There’s no law that obedience has to be difficult.
Still, if your arrogance starts acting up, take on some additional penance that is hard enough. Whatever that means for you. Hard enough that you stop being so darn proud of your mad penance skills and start thinking instead about how desperately you need your Savior Jesus Christ.
Others of you struggle miserably with even the most basic rules. You fail and fail and fail some more.
So what? Pick yourself up and try again. You’ve got forty days to keep on practicing, sooner or later you’re gonna manage to do something right, at least for a few minutes.
At least you aren’t flirting with that deadly sin of pride quite so much any more. It’s a good change.
Photo by Charles J. Sharp of Sharp Photography, courtesy of Wikimedia CC 4.0. Read more about the common blackbird here, if you need a harmless distraction from all the good and evil things you’re supposed to be avoiding today.