Friday, February 8, 2008

Off the wagon

How does being on or off the wagon apply to Lent, though?

It seems, from my little bit of research, that the temperance movement was animated and driven by a concept of the human person that is very different from the Catholic conception. The temperance movement sought to solve a social problem first of all through social pressure. Then, the intemperate stood up and took a public pledge (that made no mention of God) to overcome their socially unacceptable behavior through an effort of self-control. Finally, the temperance movement successfully lobbied for laws that would prohibit the sale of alcohol, in an attempt to control those who would not take the pledge and those who took it but couldn't keep to it. That these laws did not do what they were designed to do is not my point here.

The Church does not ask for any kind of pledge during Lent, she doesn't ask us to choose a socially unacceptable activity to give up as part of our Lenten observance (sin is out no matter what the season), she never suggests that we can overcome sin of any kind (including intemperance) through any effort of self-control, and she doesn't attempt to control her children through the use of a legal system.

Why underline these points? Because I think that the mentality of our culture still harbors the concept of the human person that gave birth to the temperance movement. I think that we, as Catholics, sometimes succumb to the idea that Lent is the time to reform our lives through an effort of will. I think that we view Lent as a test of our self-control. When we fail to keep our Lenten observances, we feel we've failed the test.

Maybe it's useful to fail this test, year after year, if only because it might teach us that we are powerless to control ourselves. Perhaps this repetitive failure might one day lead us to the truth -- that apart from Christ we can do nothing. "Apart from Christ" being the operative phrase in that sentence.

All our efforts to police ourselves are really a sly attempt to justify ourselves in front of the throne of God. What need does he have for our justification? Hasn't he already justified us simply by allowing us to continue to live in each moment? The gift of life is the sign that he approves of us, that he values us beyond any of our actions. What more justification do we need? In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, who left the temple justified? The man who beat his breast and said, "Have mercy on me, a sinner." Do we really want to "succeed" at Lent? Why? What will our prayer be, then?

We depend on God for everything. If we are given the grace to want to give up something for Lent, let's receive this desire as a gift, not something that has its origin in us (as though we were giving the gift to God!) -- and not something for which we can determine the outcome, either. Success or failure in this endeavor are each gifts from a God who is constantly calling us to be who we are -- dependent, powerless, and in need. During Lent the Church invites us to recognize this fact of who we are in front of God. We are dust, but we must also remember that we are dust that has been formed and shaped in the hands of Another -- Another who breathed his breath into our souls, and gives us each breath of life as a gift. Let's keep asking him to show us the truth.

1 comment:

clairity said...

Amen!! There can be a wee bit of Irish Jansenism in our holy practices. ;)

Dumbstruck by the Mystery

...our temptation is always to impose our prejudices or our measure on reality -- except when we are faced with a fact that leaves us dumbstruck, and instead of dominating the fact ourselves, we are dominated, overcome by it. If there were no moments of this kind, the Mystery could do anything, but in the end, we would reduce everything to the usual explanation. But not even a Nobel Prize winner can stop himself from being dumbstruck before an absolutely gratuitous gesture. If there were not these moments, we would find answers, explanations, and interpretations to avoid being struck by anything. It is good that some things happen that we cannot dominate, then we have to take them seriously, and this is the great question of philosophy. If the conditions for the possibility of knowledge (see Kant) impose themselves on reality or if there is something that is so powerfully disproportionate that it does not let itself be "grasped" by the conditions of possibility, then the horizon opens. If this were not the case, then we could dominate everything and be in peace, or at least without drama. Instead, not even the intelligence of a Nobel Prize winner could prevent him from coming face-to-face with a fact that made him dumbstruck -- instead of dominating, it was he who was dominated. Here begins the drama, because I am called to answer. It is the drama that unfolds between us and the Mystery, through certain facts, certain moments, in which the Mystery imposes itself with this evidence. These are facts that we cannot put in our pocket, which we cannot reduce to antecedent factors.
-- Julian Carron in "Friends, that is, Witnesses."