How to Keep a Good Lent

The beauty of ritual is that it breaks up the monotony of change.  Every year it’s the same question: what are you giving up for Lent? Around Ash Wednesday, in pious circles at least, fasting ideas are traded like baseball cards.  A few days ago a couple of young men approached me after class asking what I thought of theirs.  “We want to give up socks and shoes.”  “Oh my,” I began.  And I wonder how you would have replied?

Obvious objections flitted across my mind.  Each had a truth to offer but none, so it seemed to me, fit.  The first was the call of the health and safety sergeant.  “Those boys will catch a cold!  They might step on a nail!  Think of the mud!”  True, true, and truer.  But mud dries and I presume they’ve had their tetanus shot, so we moved on.  Next, the social-convener skeptic whispered:  “If they stepped into a mall, people would mock.”  But that is weak.  Even I know malls are filled with freakish sights; besides, if security caused trouble, the boys could ask directions to the nearest tattoo shop and probably get an honorable escort.  Hardest to answer in my mind’s dialogue was – what can I name her? – the softly-spiritual auntie.  “You can’t go barefoot.  That would make a show of yourself, like the Pharisees.  We should give up pride, not wearing shoes.”  Adding to that last voice, too, was the Gospel, thundering on about the left hand not knowing about the right.  Perhaps the boys had better keep their boots on and find some other way to be daring?

The young men and I went back and forth a while, naming the pros and cons of their Lenten idea, noting as we went the obvious pitfalls that attend outward piety.  It’s a work of prudence, no doubt.  Beyond the prescribed disciplines, each man is, in a sense, in it for himself.  A wise fast for a 50 something grandmother will not always help a 20 something mother (skipping sleep, for instance).  Yet, each of us must find ways of answering God, and of beating the old ass, as St. Francis was wont to call his body.  And the Gospel can’t mean that piety should always be hidden.  After all, every Catholic secretary, plumber, and teacher was asked to make of themselves a spectacle on Ash Wednesday, like we do at the start of each Lent.

So, how to advise the boys?  How do we keep a good Lent?  I did not say that the boys were foolish to take off their socks.  The reason why the spiritual auntie gets it wrong in this case is because she takes pride too seriously, and the hot love of young men not seriously enough.  Like the poor, the risk of hubris will always be with us.  But youth will not.  The boys will graduate; they will marry as men, and die…as what?  If the passion particular to youth is not spent on wild adventures in holiness, sometimes even in public displays, they will be spent elsewhere, at bars, in cars, or buried in an ignoble casket of complacency and boredom.

Lent is the season of verbs. The Church in her wisdom does not ask us to give up pride, or greed, or lust.  What she asks of us is action: we are to pray, to fast, to give.  It’s an old lesson from Aristotle: we are how we act.  For Lent, pretending to be a saint is the first step on the long road toward actually being one.  Of course we must want to be transformed; but all that lies within our power are acts, like putting down our forks and knives, like taking up a missal, or like taking off our socks.  Our hearts we must leave up to God.


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Dr. Ryan Topping teaches at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts.  His most recent books are The Case for Catholic Education (Angelico Press) and Renewing the Mind: A Reader in the Philosophy of Catholic Education (CUA Press).

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