Blog, we have a lot of catching up to do. February is almost over and I haven’t told you about various friends’ birthday dinners, Mediterranean toga Valentine’s Day party, Mardi Dahm, one of the best birthday weekends of my life, and various food and drink adventures. The tension between living a full life and trying to write a stupid blog about it (necessitating taking photos and actually writing down recipes) has never been more apparent. But first thing’s first: it’s Lent. My birthday is the day after Valentine’s Day, which happened to be the day after Ash Wednesday this year. It’s been a confusing time. I still don’t know if I’m supposed to be happy or sad or eating lots of cake or never eating. Lent is a weird time to have birthday parties, but Lent is also just a weird time in general. I used to look forward to it; in college I’d probably have said it was my favorite season. I don’t feel that way anymore.
I think I used to look forward to Lent as an outlet for the more morose qualities of my personality. I understood Lent, I thought, and I could really engage with it; I’m bad, people are bad, God’s good, let’s all get real about all that for a minute. But now I sort of dread Lent and just try to at least try to do my best while getting through it. I’ve learned that being morose is not at all the same thing as being contrite or repentant. I can drum up some self-hate whenever, wherever; easy. I find it much harder, however, to muster what St. John Climacus called the “blessed joy-grief of holy compunction.”
The difference between self-hate and compunction is something I’ve only recently started to recognize. It can be a tricky distinction, especially in regard to ascetic practices (ie: certain Saints refusing to eat anything but the Eucharist can look a lot like anorexia to people). But the thing about self-hate is that it’s still totally under your own control. True compunction involves a surrender of your will because you not only feel bad about things you’ve done (the grief), but you use that as a door to change—which involves accepting God’s graceful forgiveness (the joy) and working to conform your will to his. That change takes a hell of a lot of work, but it’s not something that you get to determine the direction of. Self-hate says, “I suck,” period. Compunction says, “I suck because I’ve gotten off track from something good that I’m supposed to be.” Self-hate can’t see beyond the negative self and thus does nothing and takes you nowhere. Compunction works with a fuller vision of who we are—people made to be in a relationship with God—so that even our sin becomes peripheral to the bigger, better story of our redemption. Thus, felix culpa.
Many people view the demands that the Catholic Church makes of its members as encouraging self-hate. I’ve made as many jokes about Catholic guilt as the next guy, but there is more than one kind of guilt. Guilt can bog you down and do unjust violence to your self-conception, OR guilt can lead you to true compunction and the joy of change. Sure Lent can be misrepresented and misused and generally messed up, but I very emphatically believe that Lenten restrictions lead to the good kind of guilt—partly even because they are so out of our control. So, if Lent’s so great, why don’t I like it anymore? Well, probably because those restrictions are so out of my control. Basically: I’m bad at it.
We’re encouraged to take on personal fasts and commitments during Lent, but Catholics at least are straight up not allowed to eat certain things or eat in certain ways on specific days. We don’t eat meat on the Fridays of Lent, and there are two required fasting days—Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent) and Good Friday (the day of Christ’s Crucifixion). On those days, adults between the ages of 18-60 are only supposed to eat one meal and two small snacks (that add up to less than one full meal) with no meat and no anything between meals. If you’re sick or pregnant or whatever there can be exceptions.
These rules sometimes seem too specific and not specific enough at the same time. But, I’m also starting to realize that every moral instruction seems that way to me. I either want to be told exactly what to do, or just left alone—and that fluctuates depending on my mood. But Lent doesn’t depend on my mood at all, and it always requires some level of moral discernment. That’s why I don’t like it. (In a way. Yes, I’m being a lil’ hyperbolic.) Even the personal fasts I’ve taken on this year are goading the hell out of me. I guess you can take that literally. I find myself wanting the things I’ve given up (sweets, for one) all the time; not just because I have a sweet tooth, but simply because I know I’m not allowed to have them. Seriously. Like a child. Like one of my favorite babies, Evelyn, who really, really likes electric sockets, clearly only because she’s not allowed to touch them.
On Ash Wednesday my priest compared Lent to the experience of cleaning up an old apartment before moving out. You have to get rid of stuff, find a place for everything, create order out of hidden nests of chaos (like my desk drawers…geeze). You have to deal with the consequences of your own messy habits if you really want to make a fresh start. So, yeah, Lent’s good. Think about how awesome it is to have a totally organized, clean home. Deeply engaging the season is something I should do and need to do and ultimately want to do…but who looks forward to moving or spring cleaning? Weird type A people, that’s who. Not lazies like me. And that’s one of the graces of the season, I suppose: that we’re all forced to do it. And so I try. And sometimes I have a better attitude than others. Like when I got all zealous and wrote this. Back when I at least pretended to be blog-relevant when writing these kinds of posts.
If you’re interested in a less downer discussion of Lent specifically, I wrote an article for the Lent issue of Christian Reflection (the publication I work for). It’s called Keeping Vigil; it’s about becoming attentive to God’s presence in our world and lives during Lent. I don’t think I even sound lazy in it; very positive.
Anyway, I hope Lent is treating you all not too harshly. There are always Sundays. And there will always be Sundays, thank God. Tune in soon for a post on those halcyon pre-Lenten days when I threw some parties. Then also some Lenten parties. And I promise there will be recipes and little-to-no moralizing.