The Lenten Cure for Secular Optimism

COMMENTARY: I love Lent, but some people don’t, and sometimes I don’t either.

People exit after Mass on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 14, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.
People exit after Mass on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 14, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. (photo: Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

“I hate Lent,” people who grew up Christian have said to me. Some described Ash Wednesday as the worst day of the Church year. They often said it angrily, as if they were reacting to an insult or a slander, or to abuse.

That shocked me when, in my early 20s, I was a new Episcopalian discovering the Church year for the first time. I liked the fact that the year included several weeks in which you worked at seeing the truth about yourself and your need for God’s grace. The whole thing was really cool and here were people with a lot more experience of Lent than I had telling me they hated it.

I’d grown up in the complacent optimism of secular modern American liberalism. It was a world of high ideals, and ideals not to be scoffed at, beliefs about what people and society could and should be. As the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman said, “The good society is the one that knows it is not good enough.” (Something that should be true of the Church as well.)

That way of seeing the world contrasted with the people who said that what we had was the best we could ever manage or (worse) said it was so good we shouldn’t try to change it. The fact that the people who said this were comfortable did not escape me.

But I knew, being an observant young man, how inadequate an understanding of human nature the secular optimism assumed. It slipped too easily from an idea of what people could be to a conviction about what they are. At least about what the secular optimists themselves were. They, or I should say we, seemed to feel that we were as good as our ideals. (Something that is true in the Church as well.)

Worse, we felt we were good because we had such high ideals, and even worse than that, that we were better than the normal run of human beings, who were not so enlightened as we. It was a religious conviction no one saw as religious. It was a claim to righteousness.

This was mostly vanity, and as relatively harmless to others as most human vanity, like the older men who overestimate their attractiveness to women and swan into the room as if every woman between 20 and 70 will soon be clustering around them. They wind up more alone than they expected, but everyone else has a good time.

But sometimes the feeling was more than vanity. Sometimes it was a cover for acting badly. People who feel themselves enlightened above the common race of men have a reason not to think about, or even to care about, how they live.

They, or again we, can speak grandly of their love for everyone and condemn those they think don’t love everyone the way they should, and then stiff a waiter, or cheat on their spouse, or betray a friend to get in with the important people, or bully a student or a secretary, or offload their responsibilities to others on the government, or in other ways act very badly.

The reality of their lives didn’t seem to matter. For various reasons, including my father’s rigid stoic belief in duty, I couldn’t manage that complete obliviousness to one’s moral state. I knew that idea of ourselves didn’t describe me, nor anyone I knew.


For Christian Realism

This explains in part why I loved hearing “you are dust and to dust you shall return” on Ash Wednesday and getting through the whole season of Lent the continual reminders that you are not the person you’d like to think you are, and most of the time thought you were. The experience felt to me like leaving an overheated room where you kept falling asleep, and walking out into a brisk cold day that awakened every sense. You may start shivering in the cold, but you also feel alive.

But then there were the others, the people who surprised me, who seemed to feel Lent as if they were being dragged from a lovely summer picnic in the park into a dungeon with torturers eager to punish them when they hadn’t done anything. Torturers, I gathered, who often looked like Mom and Dad, their childhood parish priest, the nuns and teachers at the parochial school, and other people who claimed to speak with the authority of God Almighty, but spoke solely of judgment and did not speak with his mercy.

Someone robbed them of the ability to hear Lent’s particular truth. The wounds go deep. In my 20s, with my background, I had no idea how badly religion could hurt people. I eventually learned not to chatter on about the wonders of Lent and not to ask them how they could possibly feel the way they did about such a great invention.

I would say to them, if anyone asked, that the Church year offers different seasons with different purposes and those who can’t enjoy Lent can enjoy other seasons. God offers many ways to himself, because his fallen, fractured people need them. Maybe they should skip the Ash Wednesday service (it’s not a holy day of obligation), do the bare minimum of fasting the Church requires, and choose disciplines that turn them outward, like giving more to the needy and reading more Scripture.


Discouraging Lent

As much as I liked the whole idea of Lent, after some years I began to feel a little of what some other people felt about it. I still loved the Ash Wednesday Mass, but the rest of Lent began to feel heavier and more discouraging.

My problem, I think, was that though I really liked the idea of buckling down and facing the facts about myself, I didn’t properly connect it to Easter. I saw Lent as preparation for Easter, but not as an enactment of Easter. Lent pointed to the Cross, not the empty tomb.

We Catholics battled through Lent like boot camp and then, ideally buff and well-trained, we graduated with a big party. We’d gained some useful knowledge in boot camp. Except for some weekly exercises, like eating a special diet on Fridays, we were free until we had to go back into training the next year.

That made it more an act of will and less a participation in grace, more a matter of illumination and less of transformation. I had to learn to live Lent as participation in Easter, as a way of living out the Resurrection in a particular way for a particular purpose.

One thing I’ve thought to do is to think of the Risen Lord whenever I do anything specifically Lenten. A small act of attention, but a helpful way of seeing the whole thing, the way a movie begins a scene focused on a person and then pulls back to show the whole countryside so that you see something of the whole story of which he’s a part.

And the whole story, of which Ash Wednesday and Lent express a part, is amazing.