This Lent, Give God Permission to Turn You Into a Saint

(photo: Vodnik, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

As we enter the Lenten season, I’m experiencing a variety of my usual feelings about the season. One is similar to how I feel about a New Year and resolutions: a kind of playful not-to-be-taken-seriously approach, which isn’t very helpful. Another is a feeling of panic as I can’t decide what I’m going to give up and take on and how I’ll manage it. A third is a feeling of resignation, even annoyance. One year I considered giving up my Christianity for Lent, just to see what that would be like.

Not eating meat on Fridays is a problem for me. Not because I hate to give up meat, but because I always forget that it’s Friday. Notes and reminders don’t penetrate my consciousness when I’m fixing or ordering a meal. And I’m not usually around other Catholics who can remind me. And even when I am, they’re not always helpful. I was at a restaurant with a mischievous priest who chatted amiably while I ordered a steak. It was a beautiful steak, a perfect steak. He waited until I took the first bite before saying, “It’s Friday, you know.” He smiled as he said it. It did not assist me in holiness.

Surprisingly, McDonald’s often helps me remember the no-meat-on-Friday obligation. I thought it was an interesting piece of trivia to learn that McDonald’s created its filet-o-fish sandwich because it was losing so many Catholics on Fridays. That was a shrewd move on their part. And sometimes seeing a McDonald’s sign reminds of that little fact, which reminds me about the day of abstinence.

My Evangelical friends are remarkably quick to determine how I should practice my Lenten disciplines. One year I had given up all “secular media” and an Evangelical insisted that I wasn’t allowed to read menus in a restaurant because it was, technically, “secular media.” This same person, annoyed that I wouldn’t go to a movie with him, complained that I was being “self-righteous.” I explained that this inconvenient exercise in abstinence and self-denial during a season of profound repentance wasn’t conducive to ego gratification on my part.

I asked Dr. Sean Innerst—scholar, theologian and one of the co-founders of the Augustine Institute—what the Saints gave up for Lent. “Sin,” he replied, echoing the admonition of St. John Chrysostom (“Fasting is the change of every part of our life, because the sacrifice of the fast is not the abstinence but the distancing from sins”).

Dr. Innerst explained that “the value of mortification as an essential part of the interior life has been eclipsed by a spirituality of accommodation to the world—very sad. We surround ourselves with luxuries and then give up one or two of these in Lent and call it penance.” I won’t deny it. Giving up a “First World” benefit, as if it’s a life-changing inconvenience, is embarrassing.

I recently read how, on an Ash Wednesday, Saint Francis secretly went off to an island on the Lake of Perugia with two small loaves of bread. Using only a bush for shelter, he stayed there until Holy Thursday. When one of his followers rowed out to retrieve Francis, the young man found he’d eaten only half of one of the loaves.  That’s one reason why Francis is a saint—and I’m not.

So I asked Dr. Innerst: what should I do for Lent? His response: “A wise young priest once told me that we should give up things for Lent that we need to give up permanently, so that our Lents become a yearly road toward the embrace of the Evangelical Counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience. Another older priest once counseled me that after we decide upon some real sacrifice or other to make during Lent we should give God permission to provide the sacrifices that He wills for us. I’ve found this last practice to be generally uncomfortable but extremely salutary.”

Maybe I’ll give up writing posts.