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Here comes Lent again: but what, oh what, shall I give up?

Newman says that ‘the very notion of being religious implies self-denial’: true, maybe, but not easy

By on Wednesday, 9 March 2011

People in Warsaw queue for marmalade-stuffed doughnuts on Paczki, or 'Fat Thursday', before the start of Lent (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

People in Warsaw queue for marmalade-stuffed doughnuts on Paczki, or 'Fat Thursday', before the start of Lent (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

As the years have gone by, I have become increasingly ill-prepared for the beginning of Lent, the arrival of which always takes me by surprise, even when it begins as late in the year as it does today. First, what shall I give up? It’s all very well to say, as some do, that we ought actively to do things (that is, be positive) rather than give them up (supposedly negative): Lent is a time for spiritual growth after all, not for a kind of personal shrinking and self-confinement: that’s the argument. But it really won’t do, will it? John Henry Newman, for one, would give this notion pretty short shrift. Consider the following, from one of his Lenten sermons (the whole thing is worth reading):

Self-denial of some kind or other is involved, as is evident, in the very notion of renewal and holy obedience. To change our hearts is to learn to love things which we do not naturally love – to unlearn the love of this world; but this involves, of course, a thwarting of our natural wishes and tastes. To be righteous and obedient implies self-command; but to possess power we must have gained it; nor can we gain it without a vigorous struggle, a persevering warfare against ourselves. The very notion of being religious implies self-denial, because by nature we do not love religion.
Self-denial, then, is a subject never out of place in Christian teaching; still more appropriate is it at a time like this, when we have entered upon the 40 days of Lent, the season of the year set apart for fasting and humiliation.

Newman is right, of course: but knowing that doesn’t make the notion of self-denial any easier, or the taking of concrete decisions as to what it will involve in one’s own case. People have, in all sincerity, thought up schemes of supposed self-denial, some of which look pretty fishy to me. Consider the scheme by one chap in Iowa, who intends to give up all solid food for Lent, replacing it by a certain kind of Bavarian beer (doppelbock): this is supposedly what Bavarian Paulaner monks (who invented this calorie- and carbohydrate-laden beverage in the 17th century) used to do during Lent. The monks (a species of hermit friar) are supposed to have abstained from all forms of solid food, using this doppelbock as a substitute. These members of the Order of Minims (which was founded by St Francis of Paola in 1435) maintained this tradition until quite recently, but it came to an end when their Bavarian house finally closed down: so it doesn’t seem to have done them much good in the end. Self-denial, says Newman, “involves, of course, a thwarting of our natural wishes and tastes”: consuming nothing but doppelbock doesn’t sound much like any kind of thwarting. 
So my problem remains. Giving up drink would be an obvious thwarting of my own personal wishes and tastes: but will I stick to it? The idea, I have to say, fills me with a certain gloom. So maybe that’s what I should deny myself. As for what I will actually positively do rather than abstain from– among other things, like many others no doubt, I will certainly be reading the Pope’s book Jesus of Nazareth: Part Two, which focuses on the events of Holy Week, no doubt with the Holy Father’s usual combination of lucidity, scholarship and spiritual depth.
But what shall I give up? I’m still not sure. What about you?

  • Marian Sharaf

    Self denial! Sacrifice! It does not have to start with anything big. Little by little – and thats what matters – thats what makes the difference. As children, I am sure, we all felt heroic making little sacrifices. Thats exactly how we must feel now – as children would do!

  • Charles Martel

    Dear Dr Oddie, perhaps you could give up slandering traditional Catholics…

  • W Oddie

    I thought I WAS a traditional Catholic. But if you mean the SSPX, it’s a deal.

  • Fr. Juan R. Velez

    One way “To change our hearts is to learn to love things which we do not naturally love – to unlearn the love of this world” is to fight our sinful and bad habits. And the Pope’s book will certainly help us love Christ more and unite ourselves to his suffering through our own suffering and self-denial.

  • Catholic State3

    How about giving up meat for Lent! I think this should be the standard set for all Catholics everywhere, in good health over 18…..and then people can add or subtract to this standard as they feel able.

  • Ratbag

    Lent is a spring clean for the soul and body.

    There are plenty of ways to fast during Lent – give up telly, give up video games, cut down on unnecessary time spent on the internet (because I know that giving it up completely is impossible at work), raspberry (oops! I mean Blackberry) and mobile phones. Give up celebrity rags (mags).

    Install a swear box at work or at home and for every naughty word you utter put a £1 in the box for charities such as Aid To The Church In Need or CAFOD. Give up, yes, but there is plenty for us to do extra…

    … but don’t trumpet it! God loves good works after all…

  • Chris51

    How about giving up sin?

  • Emma W

    I suppose you could take something up that you might not normally do such as praying the rosary daily or the chaplet to the divine Mercy. Or you could give up on something you really like such as beer, alcohol, meat, fancy food etc. Then any money you would have spent on beer/nice food you could give to charity or other people in need. Perhaps when you see a homeless person, offer to help him by buying him/her a sandwich etc. As long as it comes from the heart and you do it with love. Jesus tells us not to trumpet our good deeds. We can offer up our sacrifices to Jesus, and by doing so we carry His cross. We can offer up our sacrifice for other people who don’t believe in God or for the souls in purgatory. Jesus loves us so much and He wants us to return this love by making sacrifices as He did for us. God bless.

  • Jeannine

    How about giving up a free hour on Fridays & pray in front of the Blessed Sacrament? Or how about attending weekday mass? The more free time you give to our Lord, the more graces he will give you, resulting in the right disposition to serve others with kindness.

  • TH2

    Agree with your intent. But to be sinless for 40 days? A possibility? I see Pelagianism in the distance.

  • Charles Martel

    Thank you!

  • RJ

    Surely it is possible not to sin (by God’s grace, a crucial qualifier which avoids Pelagianism). Otherwise, God would be commanding the impossible. In fact, sin is by nature a voluntary act, something we can choose to do or not to do – otherwise it would not be sin.

  • geordie

    I am aghast at the childishness of the debate on fasting. When somebody as clever and dependaable as Mr Oddie asks at the start of Lent, But what shall I give up? it’s a clear sign that the Catholic Church has completely forgotten a vital strand of its practice.
    Try reading Great Lent by the Orthodox Alexander Schmemann, and open your eyes to the seriousness of the issue. Fasting is not just about a touch of self denial. It’s not just about achieving self-control. It’s about being weak and hungry, it’s about living with intensity our dependency on the Lord. It’s meant to be hard – which is why we need the Church, leadership and each other, to explain it and support us during this passage through the wilderness. It’s a great way of passing from pious chit-chat to affirming our faith through costly action – although Lord knows what we would call mortification, much of the world would call plenty. Of course it is not an end in itself, of course it must be accompanied by prayer, of course we must not let it become a way of asserting our own righteousness, but Our Lord did it, and all the great saints did it. We should do it, but we don’t do it, we have forgotten how to do it, we have forgotten that we should do it.

  • Hadrek

    give up life in the name of opus daioboli one less shi the lebanon to invite and do