I recently finished a book about rites of passage for Catholic men and boys. One of the main purposes of a rite of passage, at least for the adolescent transition to manhood, was to establish a clear sense of belonging and purpose. On your own, you really can’t generate such things since an individual cannot belong to himself in love (i.e. relationally) and an individual cannot be his own purpose (i.e. self-centeredness). In other words, he needs the culture beyond him to draw him out of himself, to bestow a clear identity once the ego is left behind, and to point him toward a purpose or destiny.
I discovered that cultures that had these clear rites of passage had a greater “tribal” sense, meaning a known way to live and belong, strong relationships and the happiness that flows from them, and the simple benefit of more mature men. Who doesn’t want more of that?
What I could not place my finger on was why it was so hard for Catholics to feel and live this belonging. Actually, it would be better to say how we lost the ability to belong to one another. As Christian Smith notes in the Catholic chapter of Soul Searching, there really has never been such an amazing abandonment of belonging in less than a generation as there was in the last century of Catholicism.
Now, as readers of Catholic sites know well, there are many, many reasons behind the loss of faith – my favorite reasons come from Mary Eberstadt’s book How the West Really Lost God – but when it comes to having tangible ways of life, shouldn’t Catholics excel here? We have prayers, novenas, devotions, and all sorts of devotions that are not only akin to the tribal mini-rituals of ancient cultures, but are elevated by the fact of the truth and grace available through Christ’s Church.
What cultures of belonging have are ways to collectively deny the individual’s ego to draw them toward a larger purpose – fasting and prayer are near universal examples. Thinking upon this is when it hit me:
We have privatized and individualized the devotional life of Catholics.
The Friday penance is a great example. A generation ago it was clear: Catholics – all of them – do not eat meat on Fridays. Oh sure, we all know there’s gaps in observance among the faithful and less-than, but the norm was sure. As laws and local requirements changed in recent decades, however, the Friday penance was no longer specific and became, basically, “each person should give up something.” (Here’s a review of the laws.) In the same span of time collective days of fasting for Catholics went from somewhere between 40-50 a year (rogation days, Lent, etc.) to 2 (Ash Wednesday and Good Friday). Common and nearly binding-by-custom devotions such as public Rosaries and certain Novenas also went away.
It is said that the motivation for such things was for people to move beyond a law-abiding faith to a Spirit-abiding one. Ok. We also know at this point that experts tinkering with organically developed piety and custom does not seem to help, and can actually kill what it wants to live. Emphasizing the personal dimension of faith has led to the individualization of it in a way that is un-Catholic. We are a Body bound so tight that to miss one Sunday Mass, to sever from the Body, is to commit a mortal sin.
To put it bluntly: in our prayer and asceticism, we are too much alone in it.
Actually, this didn’t just “come to me”. It really hit me going through my second round of Exodus90, a program that, as the writers describe it, is based on the formula: “prayer+asceticism+fraternity = freedom.” Most of it is pretty basic Catholic stuff – good but rooted in old ideas, not new ones – but the piece that seems to be really driving it home to effectiveness is the fraternity part. The way it works is basically men join in a shared asceticism and prayer regimen that they discuss weekly and even daily. If you slip and fall, everyone starts over. For ninety days! No sweets, beer, binging, media, and on and on.
It’s intense, but there is something binding about going through the imposed suffering of mortification with others – each knowing the other is united in the suffering. As soldiers are bound together after facing battle together, the brotherhood on the other side of Exodus90 seems to prove that if we want to really belong to one another, it might be time to re-think our privatized devotional life. We all know the first part well of St. Peter’s warning about the roaming Lion seeking our soul, but the next verse is where the strength is:
Be sober, and watch well; the devil, who is your enemy, goes about roaring like a lion, to find his prey, but you, grounded in the faith, must face him boldly; you know well enough that the brotherhood you belong to pays, all the world over, the same tribute of suffering… (1 Peter 5:8-9, Knox).
So, maybe instead of everyone asking “what are you giving up for Lent,” we could ask, “What are we giving up for Lent?”