March 3, 2006

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Ask God, ‘What’s the best discipline for Lent?’

Hello, God. Yeah, it’s me again. It’s the beginning of Lent, and here I am waiting to be made worthy by my Lenten efforts. Maybe this will be the year.

It seemed to be easier when I was a kid. Remember all that chocolate I gave up? Well, more chocolate than the amount I gave up is now part of my hips, so I guess that idea didn’t work as I’d planned. As you knew all along, my subtle plan was to kill two birds with one stone: being virtuous while trimming my figure.

And remember how we used to give up smoking for six weeks, plus a couple days, just to be sure it stuck? Humph. Now it’s a social obligation for everyone to give up smoking, whether it’s Lent or not. Kind of takes the zing out of that penance too, doesn’t it?

Foregoing swearing or using bad language was always a popular penance, as I recall. But most of what we gave up was pretty tame stuff by today’s standards—if popular television, movies and music are any indication of the state of modern communications. In fact, we get the impression that without bad words, not much would be spoken or sung at all.

Another favorite thing to give up in old times was soft drinks, or sweets in general. Dentists and moms were fond of this one, and not just for spiritual reasons. Reading today’s statistics that more kids drink Pepsi than milk—and that many of their lunches consist of vending machine candy, chips and sugared “energy” bars—we’ll have to eliminate this penance also. We’d be denying them essential nutrition!

Perhaps not allowing ourselves to watch movies and television is still a good penance. Considering the current moral level of some of them, it might even be essential to our spiritual condition. Inversely, we could try bringing back TV shows like “Joan of Arcadia” and reissuing movies like Romero, and making everyone watch them.

For that matter, composers like Mozart and Michael Joncas and the Carter family might become “in” listening if penitents had to give up much of what passes for popular music these days. Misogyny, violence, despair and just plain noise would be revealed as the moral traps they are when compared to the spiritual joy found in inspired music.

Of course, since Vatican II the Lenten emphasis has changed from “giving up” things to encouraging more positive practices. Instead of denying physical or emotional gratification, we start a regimen of personal prayer or join a Bible study class or attend daily Mass more often. The intent is not only to make ourselves aware of the need to change, but also to create change using spiritual tools.

This is a great idea, God. But I don’t need to tell you that it’s not a magic pill. I still seem to be measuring spiritual growth in tiny amounts rather than impressive leaps. Somehow, being human often trumps my best efforts at Lenten renewal.

I’m sure you’ve noticed that most of my faults are the same ones I had when I was 8; there are still parts of me that I’d like to change.

So here’s the deal: During this Lent, I won’t give up anything but those very faults when I catch them appearing, and I’ll ask you for help every day—because I know that you’ve made Easter follow Lent.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)


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