In her brilliant article in the latest Catholic Herald, Melissa Kite makes a bold point, “as we enter Lent, resolved to practise moderation it’s a struggle to think of something to give up that society still frowns on”.
What I took away from Ms Kite’s piece is that sin has become so sexy and acceptable, that to actively do something during Lent that separates us from sin is just not the done thing. I’m going to go one step further: people who give up something pleasurable are often frowned upon for doing so.
If someone gives up chocolate as a penance, they may feel they have to drape their reason in vanity: “Oh, I won’t get so many spots”. When someone does an onerous penance like volunteering for long-hours with the elderly, they have to dress it up in ambition: “Well it will look good on my CV”.
Speaking up and telling our friends and colleagues our faith-based reasons as to why we are foregoing tea, coffee, cigarettes or giving up Netflix is the stuff of white martyrdom.
An average 20-something might say: “Yeah, it’s horrid not having my morning coffee, but I’m offering it up for the Holy Souls”. Or a Catholic dad might say: “I’m so irritable without my cigs that I’m becoming an unpopular grouch, but I’m going to persevere because if my kids smell me and know I’ve had a puff, they will not take Lent seriously and it’ll damage their faith.”
Or closer to the bone, a heavy-drinker of any age may say: “I’m getting scarily dependent on getting drunk very often to feel good about myself – but I’m giving up drink for Lent and it’ll be rough but I want to offer it up for the intentions of a close friend.”
OK – I admit that someone who mentions the Holy Souls will get a lot of blank faces – and when they explain their listeners might think they are touched or superstitious to the point of being ill.
And a modern dad who wants to give a good example to his kids and not become a hypocrite might be insulted, told he is a bad parent who wants to indoctrinate their kids in medieval nonsense.
The heavy drinker may just lose a lot of atheistic friends who are put to shame by one of their drinking-buddies giving up the sauce for 40 days – their attitude will be “why bother?” It’s not as if there is a God that will smile on such a sacrifice.’
Down through the years I’ve met many people who take on arduous fasts and take on lots of extra prayer during Lent, but they turn white-faced and scared at the suggestion that they tell people around them why.
Many of them have good reasons, it would sour things at work and they are barely paying the bill as it is, or it will make them less attractive to someone they are in love with. I still suggest that this Lent, we do the most difficult pairing of penances, giving up something and being ready to explain why.
My point is that the higher and more difficult penance may lie in talking frankly about why we are undertaking Lenten penances and using phrases such as “offering it up for the intentions of…”
In late January I went to a Mass organised by Juventutem, where the celebrant was Fr Stephen Morrison, and he told the congregation of young people that penances become much easier if we offer them for someone that we care for.
This worked for me last Lent when I underwent increasingly difficult penances for the intentions of a dear friend, John Carmichael who was deep in the throes of writing his memoir Drunks and Monks.
Lent was made so much easier because I had the intentions of a real person in mind and his book that I hold will bring many souls into the Catholic Church.
To stay quiet or to hide behind secular reasons or the herd mentality (“well every other Catholic is doing their bit for Lent, so am I”) is perpetuating the exact type of societal trend that Melissa Kite pinpoints; where nothing sinful is frowned upon, because no one ever uses the word, ‘sinful’.
It follows that the pervading silence as to our true reasons for ‘giving stuff up’ has contributed to our faith losing its voice.
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