Lent hit before the pandemic did, remember? It seems like so long ago, but I do remember how Ash Wednesday brought about the traditional pious squabbles about how best to observe it — or, more accurately, about how poorly everyone else was observing it. Traditionalists sneered at the soft and feeble neo-Caths whining over the few penances modern Catholics are still obligated to perform; and left-leaners rolled their eyes at the performative masochism inherent in extravagant fasts and self-deprivations. Remember when that what we wrestled with?
Also according to tradition, I struck a healthy spiritual balance by being annoyed with everyone.
I have scant patience for people who loudly and self-righteously announce they are exempting themselves from fasting because it makes them feel tired, and therefore it must not be healthy, and their God is a God of love who isn’t into that kind of thing, and anyway their Fitbit doesn’t have a way to track “dying to self.”
I also have zero sympathy for Catholics who are passionately in love with their faith as long as it’s gory and dramatic and self-aggrandizing (but when it has to do with loving their fellow man, not so much). Scratch a Twitter Catholic who’s really enthusiastic about old school penance, and you’re pretty likely to find an old school fetishist. (On second thought, don’t scratch him, unless you want him to think you’re asking for some amateur photography in your DM’s.)
So anyway, yeah, I recall heading into Ash Wednesday Mass with a heart full of dust. I don’t know what to tell you. It’s almost like I need a savior.
One of the conversations around these topics did yield something fruitful, something I somehow never understood before. It is this: Fasting isn’t just an exercise in self-control, and it isn’t just something we do in solidarity with the poor, who have fasting imposed on them.
Fasting is also, maybe even primarily, a way of revealing to ourselves just how helpless we are.
It’s a way of reminding us something about ourselves which is always true, but gets masked by a razor thin veneer of strength, an illusion of control. We fast not to work our way up to crushing sin with our new spiritual muscles, but because we forget so easily how close we always are to being just plain dead. We fast because we need to be reminded that we are helpless.
Well, just in case you didn’t catch that lesson when Ash Wednesday came around, the virus followed up. And now every single one of us has had a penance, a fast, imposed on us from the outside. Want some food? There isn’t any. Think you’re in charge? Here’s an invisible enemy that can attack you through your mouth, your nose, your eyes. Forgot about death? Here are the bodybags. And there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.
It’s up to us whether or not we learn from these privations and revelations of the pandemic. We do have free will, and even when our exterior circumstances are out of our control, we still have interior options.
The same is true with fasting. It’s entirely possible to follow the Church’s guidelines on fasting — to voluntarily undertake this discipline — but to still do it the wrong way. We can fill ourselves full of beef broth and milk and carbonated beverages and feel as full as possible without actually eating, and thereby miss the full experience of emptiness and want. And we can masochistically revel in the perverse pleasure of our meal-deprived agonies, and end up feeling proud and accomplished at our strength the end of the day. We can waste the opportunity the Church offers us, and make it useless or even harmful. We can miss the point, which is that we are helpless, in need of a savior.
And the same is true with the privations imposed on us by this pandemic, including the temporary loss of the sacraments.
The last few weeks have been a study in how to get through a pandemic wrong. We can trample each other, steal, hoard, and lie. We can be imprudent and reckless and cruel. We can call each other either communists or fascists based on whether we’re more comfortable with risking the lives of the vulnerable or risking the livelihoods of the poor. We can use our suffering as a chance to tell other Catholics that they, too, would disobey their bishops if they just wanted Jesus badly enough.
But the only real answer is the same as it was on Ash Wednesday, when the statues were covered, the alleluias were taken away, and the angel descended to tell us we are dust. The answer is: We are helpless. We need a savior. We cannot save ourselves.
There is no system that will bring about only good things for all people. Someone always gets broken. Someone always gets infected. What we are, what we always have been is helpless, helpless. In need of a savior.
So now we’re rounding the corner toward Holy Week, and I still have a heart full of dust. I have stuck to my penances, more or less. I have fasted. I have prayed. I have bleated out my confession to a priest six feet away. I have done my best to be prudent. And I have still been infected with rage and disdain for my fellow man, still allowed fear to colonize my heart. I have still scrambled to mask myself with a thin veneer of control as I watch everyone I know wrestle with this angel, and watched them receive what I know will be a permanent limp.
It says in the Torah: Accustom your tongue to say: I do not know, lest you become entangled in a web of deceit.
I do not know how to do this right, any of it. The sanitizing, the fasting, the sacraments, the seclusion, the shopping, any of it. I do not know. Because I am helpless. It’s almost as if I need a savior.
Image: Detail of Jacob Wrestling With an Angel from The Ridpath Library of Universal Literature via wikipedia