With Ash Wednesday fast approaching, Catholics of a certain vintage and temperament are likely to be asking themselves a familiar question: What should I give up for Lent? In these supposedly enlightened times, however, others are skeptical of the whole idea of “giving up.” Keep Lent, they say, by doing something positive.
To do something positive for Lent is certainly a good idea. But so is giving something up. In one of his Anglican Sermons, Cardinal Newman makes the case for the latter clearly and forcefully. It goes like this: “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.”
The great thinker continues:
To be righteous and obedient implies self-command; but to possess power, we must have gained it; nor can we gain it without vigorous struggle, a persevering warfare against ourselves. The very notion of being religious implies self-denial, because by nature we do not love religion.
And Lent? “The season of the year set apart for fasting and humiliation.”
Given the prevailing disdain for things like fasting and humiliation, this requires some unpacking.
It should be obvious that no one can give up what he doesn’t possess, or at least wants to possess, nor can anyone practice ascetically meaningful self-denial in regard to something he doesn’t value. There would be no point, for instance, in my saying I intend to give up flying an airplane, because I don’t fly airplanes and have no interest in doing so. But I do know a man for whom flying has been an important part of his life for many years, so that giving up flying would be a real sacrifice – for him.
As for me, I gave up smoking a long time ago, and giving it up was a sacrifice for me because I’d enjoyed smoking up to then. But here the question of motivation enters in: why you deny yourself something is very important in the ascetical context.
I quit smoking because I heeded the Surgeon General’s warning and wanted to preserve my health. But even though quitting for the sake of your health is a good thing to do, in and of itself it doesn’t have much connection with the interior life and one’s relationship with God (that’s clear from the fact that atheists can quit smoking for the very same reason). Moreover, to the extent someone might stop smoking in order to feel good about himself (“See what a terrific guy I am because I quit smoking”), the motive isn’t good at all.
So, you ask, what is? That’s easy. To the extent self-denial truly is denial of self, the ascetical objective is to grow in self-possession in order to be able more perfectly to give oneself to God. And if this clashes with deterministic assumptions about human behavior, be glad it does. The ascetical struggle cheerfully operates on the assumption that freedom lost can be freedom regained by a combination of self-discipline and grace.
It is important not to think the struggle takes place only in rarefied realms accessible to none but a select few. For many people, it happens in everyday life. This is central to the spirituality of the “little way” that Saint Thérèse of Lisieux lays out in her autobiography, with an example drawn from her own experience.
Living in the same convent with her was an elderly, sick nun named Sister Saint Peter. It had become necessary that someone help her to the refectory for dinner every evening. Thérèse writes that she “didn’t want to volunteer for this task,” but, seeing it as a great opportunity for spiritual progress, she bit the bullet.
“Every evening, as soon as I saw her start shaking her hourglass [during community prayer], I knew it meant: ‘Let’s start.’ . . .Before we set out, her stool had to be picked up and carried in a particular way. Above all, there had to be no sign of haste: I had to follow her, supporting her. . . .If, however, she unfortunately stumbled, she instantly thought I was not holding on to her properly and that she was going to fall: ‘Oh, good heavens! You are walking too fast. I shall tumble down.’ Then, if I tried to lead her more slowly, I would hear: ‘Keep close to me. I can’t feel your hand. You’ve let me go. I’m going to fall! I knew very well you were far too young to look after me.’”
And so on until they reached the refectory, where new complaints set in.
Thérèse persevered. One day she noticed that the old nun had trouble cutting her bread. After that, she writes, “I used not to leave her without doing it for her.” And so: “She was very touched by this, as she had never asked me to do it. I won her complete trust through this and especially – as I discovered much later – because at the end of all my little duties I gave her what she called ‘my nicest smile.’”
Life in a Carmelite convent in France in the late nineteenth century was quite different from life in today’s world. But where self-denial and self-giving are concerned, it’s much the same. Self-denial, Saint Josemaría once said, is made up of “small conquests, such as smiling at those who annoy us, denying the body some superfluous fancy, getting accustomed to listening to others, making full use of the time God allots us.” Home, workplace, and classroom regularly afford opportunities for doing such things.
All of which points to the conclusion that giving up something with the right intention is itself “doing something positive.” Happy Lent!