“What should I give up for Lent?”
I suspect that most earnest Catholics have been asking themselves that question for about a week or so. Now that Lent has arrived, and folks have made that list of “give-ups” (say, chocolate or cigarettes or alcohol, or for the most ardent of contemporary Catholics — Facebook), they are wondering, Did I give up the right thing(s)? Will this Lent be too difficult? Will it be difficult enough?
Some folks might be at pains to explain why there are “give-ups” for Lent, at most being able to offer a shrug of the shoulders with, “That’s what we Catholics do. No one knows why — that’s why it’s called ‘faith.’”
I say that the very question, “What are you giving up for Lent?” can itself be a very dangerous distraction. The more penetrating and urgent question is, “Do we really need another Lent?” And the short answer to that question is no.
Let me explain. If the question we are really asking is, “Do we need another Lent that is a season of self-improvement that turns fasting into dieting, prayer into a chore and joy into a sin?” — then, no, we surely do not need another Lent.
If the question we are really asking is, “If the season of Lent is a preparation for the life of Easter, then how shall we live?” — then, yes, we surely need another Lent. And the way to live such a Lent is a way of compassion. Such a way of compassion certainly does not preclude the traditional Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, but it does put them into a new and better context.
Let’s distinguish authentic Christian compassion from pity. At its best, pity is an emotional response to another’s suffering. At its worst, pity is (wittingly or not) an act of condescension, expressed as, “Isn’t it regrettable that you are you?” True Christian compassion can be understood through the Latin roots of the word itself — cum-passio; “to suffer with.”
Christian compassion enters into a sympathetic and practical unity with one who suffers. Compassion is a voice and act of stubborn love, telling the sufferer, “You have an identity, dignity and destiny beyond this present darkness, a darkness that will not last. And I am ready to walk with you out of the darkness into the light.”
To whom need we be especially ready to offer compassion during this season of Lent? Christ himself. One of the great Christian mysteries is that Christ, risen and victorious, is still to be found in this life as the Man of Sorrows. We would not be surprised that Christ the Man of Sorrows awaits our compassion as he suffers in the poor and in victims of violence. But would we be surprised to learn that Christ suffers and awaits our compassion within our own very selves?
I ask you to consider that this Lent and our whole discipleship will be uniquely fruitful if we begin our service of compassion by first attending to Christ the Man of Sorrows as he suffers within our own lives. Christ suffers within our own wounds — and we need to find and love him there.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not at all calling for prolonged self-pity as a Lenten practice. (Remember how wisely Alcoholics Anonymous warns against self-pity: “Poor me! Poor me! Pour me another drink!”)
I urge us to take up the practice of compassion for Christ suffering within our wounds because of what I have learned over decades of ministry, namely that the wounds of our soul, if neglected, can become infected by Satan with the contagion of sin. One of the fruits of Lent is freedom — freedom from sin and freedom for love — and that twofold freedom begins with compassion for Christ suffering within us.
How might we offer true compassion for Christ within us? We can start by acknowledging gratefully his compassion for us. We can marvel at finding him within our wounds, marvel that his love for us is so great that he finds our pain irresistible. He is determined that we will not suffer alone. He chooses to enter into all of our dark places, to reverence with his presence all of our broken places, and to touch every one of our wounds, even those that are self-inflicted.
This Lent, let’s choose to be free from whatever keeps us from responding compassionately to Christ the Man of Sorrows who is suffering within us. That compassion can be aborted by denial or scorn of our wounds, subverted by furtive attempts at self-medication through indulgence or addiction or obscured by the seductions of pride or self-pity. Let’s act to become free from all those, so that we might be free for unity with the compassionate Christ, who has already united himself to us. That is the kind of Lenten discipline we need, especially if we have never lived such a Lent before. Living a compassionate freedom during Lent, we can have a joy to celebrate at Easter that the world cannot take away from us.
When I write next, I will speak of the loneliness of Lent. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.
Father Robert McTeigue, SJ, is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. A professor of philosophy and theology, he has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry and religious formation. He teaches philosophy at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, FL, and is known for his classes in both rhetoric and medical ethics.