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?