I became a vegetarian in September 2001. It was my first week of university, and when I saw that the cafeteria offered ample vegetarian options for every meal, I quickly made up my mind that eighteen years of meat-eating had been more than enough.
“It was because of the chicken wings,” I told my family when they alarmedly voiced their concerns for my iron and protein intake. “They served this flavourless pile of skin and bones and called them Buffalo chicken wings – what a joke!”
However, the absurdity of this explanation became apparent when, upon visiting my hometown of Buffalo, NY a few months later, I did not immediately run to the Anchor Bar (birthplace of this famous culinary delight) for a plate of genuine Buffalo wings, nor did I take a single bite of the Thanksgiving turkey my family placed on the table. My mind was made up. I was vegetarian. And, contrary to what I told my family, my reasons went deeper than a college caprice. I’d actually been planning for a vegetarian adulthood as early as 1995, when the movie Babe alerted me to the horrors of factory farming and the cruelty inherent in the food we eat. So, as time went on and my family’s questions persisted, I let the truth emerge: I was a vegetarian because I cared about animal welfare.
Nevertheless, I was worried about how people would respond to my stated reason. I was hardly a viable portrait of an animal rights activist. I owned a leather jacket. I wore leather shoes. I used make-up and moisturizer and plenty of other products whose making depended on animal cruelty. Feeling like I could not easily change these self-contradictory behaviours, I tried to keep my vegetarianism as concealed as possible. I didn’t want to have to have to justify this decision. I didn’t want to be a hypocrite. I told myself that the bad-Buffalo-wings explanation was as good as any.
Nevertheless, I was bothered. I did care about animals. And, as the years went on, I found more reasons to support my vegetarianism: land usage and climate change. But once again, I could hardly portray myself as any kind of environmentalist. I was a frequent air traveller. I didn’t always recycle. I was consumerist as any other American twenty-something. Once again, I couldn’t claim a name for myself without running up against massive contradictions.
In today’s gospel (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18), we hear a firm instruction from Jesus:
“Be careful not to parade your uprightness in public to attract attention; otherwise you will lose all reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give alms, do not have it trumpeted before you; this is what the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win human admiration. In truth I tell you, they have had their reward. But when you give alms, your left hand must not know what your right is doing; your almsgiving must be secret, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you. And when you pray, do not imitate the hypocrites: they love to say their prayers standing up in the synagogues and at the street corners for people to see them. In truth I tell you, they have had their reward. But when you pray, go to your private room, shut yourself in, and so pray to your Father who is in that secret place, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.”
I couldn’t help but smile as I heard those words this morning. We were being told to pray in private, secretly – and yet, here we were in a big church, seeing and being seen by one another. And, immediately after this gospel’s conclusion, we were marked with the sign of the season. I knew from past experience that as soon as we left that church, the ashes would be transformed into a very public mark of identity. We may want to be identified as Christians by our love; today, however, we are known by our ashes. For me, this raises a serious concern. Can I live up to the image I project?
Looking at the gospel message, I do not believe that Jesus wants us to keep the signs of our faith a secret. After all, it is in the same gospel of Matthew – just one chapter earlier – where he declares, “No one lights a lamp to put it under a tub; they put it on the lamp-stand where it shines for everyone in the house. In the same way your light must shine in people’s sight, so that, seeing your good works, they may give praise to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:15-16).
Jesus’ main preoccupation in Matthew 6 is with hypocrisy. Few people frustrated him more than the Pharisees and sanctimonious religious leaders, eager to display all the external trappings of devotion while devoid of genuine charity. For Jesus, humility and self-effacement are the best ways to avoid falling into this trap. By praying and meditating in private, we can cultivate the strength of perception that lets us know when we are straying into self-righteousness; by keeping our good deeds anonymous, we make sure that we are doing them out of genuine concern for others rather than the desire for accolades. As sound of a strategy as this is, though, it can backfire if our desire to avoid hypocrisy makes us abandon all attempts to do good.
Lent is the season in which we struggle to turn from sin and cultivate virtue, when we sacrifice certain pleasures so as to direct our attention toward growing in love for God and one another. And yet, I can’t tell you how many of my Lenten promises have gone the way of failed New Year’s Resolutions. I remember the year I resolved to attend Mass every day. I made it for four days, and then one case of sleeping through my alarm led me to abandon the whole plan. The same thing happened when I tried to give up chocolate, and don’t get me started on the year I committed myself to forty days without Facebook. Disheartened, I eventually stopped trying to observe Lent at all. I now know that this sort of discouragement is not in the spirit of the season.
During my senior year of university, I became friends with a young philosophy student who was (and still is) a serious animal rights activist. A committed vegan, he consumes no animal products; he wears no leather shoes. If anyone was in a position to chastise me for my partial commitment to animal rights, it would be this friend. As we munched on soy Buffalo wings (very well-flavoured, I must say) in a delicious vegan restaurant, I told him about my hypocritical vegetarianism, dreading his response. To my surprise, instead of a rebuke, he offered a gentle smile. “It doesn’t have to be all or nothing,” he said.
It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. As soon as I heard those words, a weight was lifted from my mind. The fact that I am a vegetarian rather than a vegan may not be ideal from an animal rights perspective, but it is a start, and there’s no reason why I shouldn’t tell others my true motives for sticking to this diet. The fact that I cannot get myself out of bed for morning Mass seven days a week during Lent does not mean that I shouldn’t strive to do so three days a week. The fact that I succumb to temptation and break my Facebook fast doesn’t mean that I should abandon any attempt to return to it. The game isn’t over while we’re still here to play it. We can always do better the next time around.
I’ve long held the belief that, to some degree or another, we are all bound to be hypocrites. We inevitably fall short of the standards we set for ourselves. The Lenten season reminds us quite beautifully that as Christians we are not paragons of moral perfection (like those Pharisees so eagerly claimed to be). Rather, we are as vulnerable and faltering as children, constantly in need of God’s healing, mercy and grace. The fact that we celebrate Lent annually suggests that we probably won’t ever reach a point where we’re doing everything right. But, this is no reason to stop trying. Through private prayer and contemplation, we can cultivate the ability to be honest about our limitations and to examine the true motives for our actions. But, there is also a time to step out into the street, to let people see the ashes on our foreheads, to share our faith with those around us – no matter how limited we may be.
Happy Lent, everyone!