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And Now A Word In Favor of Negativity

Lenten penance

CC-Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.

David Mills - published on 02/25/15

The pleasures of giving things up and other Lenten disciplines

When I first discovered the discipline of giving things up for Lent, I thought it was great. The gain in self-knowledge was useful in itself, but it was also a challenge you could make into a game, like doing ten extra push-ups at night. You could feel yourself getting stronger. Even the new knowledge of how weak you are was a kind of strengthening.

Three or four times over the years I’ve written an article commending the practice. After the first one, I knew that when I hit the “publish” button, I could just count down, five, four, three, two, one, and the first comment would appear from someone who wanted me to know that Lent was not negative, that it and the Christian life are not about rules but about a living encounter with Christ, that the real Lenten disciplines are prayer, Bible-reading, and alms-giving, that Lent is not about giving things up but taking things on, that Lent should be a positive time, that it is about growth not sacrifice, that the Christian life should be joyful and not burdensome. Even that we should be “Easter Christians” — or rather, “Easter Christians!!! [followed by smiley face].”

The voices could be perky “Let me share this that you don’t know!” voices or censorious “Let me tell you this before you mislead more people” voices. In either case, they were really annoying. I thought the thing I was sharing was really cool and they tossed it in the trash.

I’ve seen this elsewhere, in responses to other people’s articles and in conversations: what feels like a compulsive or ideological need to put down practices that are the least bit “negative” or “judgmental” and to insist on the positive, uplifting, forward-thinking. This reaction simply distorts the Christian life. It’s like trying to print photos on your home printer when you’re out of black ink. A few will come out right, say if you’ve been taking Monet-like photos of lilies in bright sunlight, but the rest won’t and many you won’t be able to print at all. We only appreciate the light because we know the darkness.

This unrealistic positivity isn’t just a Catholic thing. A friend sent me the link to an article on Lent from a Hip Evangelical website called Mockingbird. It was titled What Would Jesus Do (for Lent)?. The author, an Episcopal minister, argues that in Lent, “our WWJD [What Would Jesus Do?] theology is allowed to go into overdrive.

We must “give up” something in order to identify ourselves with the suffering and self-denial of Jesus in the desert. While all of this sounds earnest and well-intentioned, this theology misses the point — devastatingly so. Jesus wasn’t just hanging out in the desert, dancing to the beat of a one man drum circle. Jesus was going toe to toe with the Satan himself. And there’s nothing relatable about that for us.

The writer continues: “People often talk of Lent as a journey, a pilgrimage, a sort of celestial road trip.” (Notice the snark.) “We come by this assessment honestly. There are 40 days of Lent because Jesus spent 40 days in the desert. And so, the thinking goes, we must be on our own sort of ascetic journey, filled with self-denial and hard earned betterment. . . What Jesus did in the desert and what we attempt to do at Lent are almost wholly unrelated."

I’ve read the article through several times and it seems to me remarkably clueless. While it sounds earnest and well-intentioned, it misses the point — devastatingly so.

We don’t fast for forty days only because Jesus did. Leave out any reference to Jesus’ forty days in the desert and Lent remains Lent. Drop that story from the gospels and the spiritual value of giving things up remains. If the Church, without even thinking about Jesus’ time in the desert, decided that forty days was a good length of time for a period of preparation to celebrate Easter, the forty days and the disciplines thereof would work just as well. She could have taken the example of Israel’s forty years in the desert or Moses’ two forty-day fasts recorded in Deuteronomy 9, especially the second.

But we don’t need to ignore Jesus’ forty days. It’s a perfectly good model for us. We can relate in our own way. Jesus went into the desert to do what he had to do and we go into our own desert to do what we have to do. He set an example.

In fact, in Lent we are dealing with the devil, or as the enemy is traditionally described, the world, the flesh, and the devil. We are tempted to use our gifts for our own gain, to presume upon God’s care, and to do evil to gain worldly power in order (as we tell ourselves) to do good. We can relate to our Lord because he faced the same temptations we do.

I don’t understand this reaction against giving things up for Lent or the dislike of “negativity” that seems to be behind it. It ignores how sinful human beings progress in life. It’s like condemning dieting and exercise for people with weak hearts or making fun of the student who’s bad at math for studying an extra hour a day and getting a tutor. It’s just bad advice.

Some people have suffered such struggles or condemnation that forcing themselves to face their own sinfulness through a discipline can be dangerous and in some cases to be avoided. Most of us, bad as we may feel about ourselves from time to time, need the hard, practical, physical reminder that we are sinners entrenched in our sins and that the troika — the world, the flesh, and the devil — has us in the palm of its hand.

It’s a hard truth, but it’s not the whole truth. It is however the truth we have to face in order really to understand the whole truth. Lent leads to the Triduum and then to Easter. To put it another way, here you are and there is Jesus. At the end of a good and holy Lent, you realize he’s a bigger man that you thought. Lent with all its disciplines just makes Easter a lot more fun.

David Mills, former executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream and columnist for several Catholic publications. His last book is Discovering Mary.

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