Helpless

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. 

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Image: Detail of Jacob Wrestling With an Angel from The Ridpath Library of Universal Literature via wikipedia

But will my husband suffer enough this Lent?

Like most lifelong Catholics, my husband and I have no idea what the rules of fasting are, so we have to look it up every year. And every year, I tell my husband, “But that’s how you eat every day anyway.” This is why he is within a single stomach virus’ distance of fitting into the pants he got married in over two decades ago, while I . . . well, let’s just say that marriage is an opportunity for growth, and I have not squandered that opportunity. No, indeedbaconator, I have not.

So I have my work cut out for me, but there’s a real danger my husband will skate by these next forty days without suffering at all! In case you’re in a similar position, here are some ways to make your husband miserable help your husband draw closer to Christ this Lent, which is your job:

1. Keep it spirituelle. Complain incessantly about all the things that make it especially hard for housewives to fast, like having to be around food all day, and being hungrier than most people anyway because your attitudes toward food and hunger and body image are all out of whack because of all the sacrifices of pregnancy and childbirth you’ve made throughout your married life. I mean, I don’t even know when I’m hungry anymore, you know? I can’t tell if I’m actually hungry, or just frustrated with how frustrating my life is, or if my body is telling my I’m deficient in something, because I’m so depleted, or what!

Then when he sympathetically suggests that you might go easy on yourself because of your state in life, give him a pitying look and murmur in a Holy Spirit kind of voice, “I don’t know, that just seems kind of . . . contrary to the spirit of the season, you know?”

2. Practice catecheticriticism. This is when you send a message to an adult in the next room by way of instructing children who are in front of you. Like this: “And so, kids, there are a lot of ways you can show God that you are sorry for your sins. Giving up Minecraft or candy OR OLD CROW is good, but you could also do things, like keeping your room clean or BRINGING THAT RIDICULOUS BROKEN DISHWASHER TO THE DUMP ALREADY or sharing your toys. These are all good things to do for Lent, and here is a nice coloring page of the stations of the cross, because I GUESS I HAVE TO BE THE SPIRITUAL HEAD OF THE FAMILY SINCE NO ONE ELSE IS STEPPING UP. Here are some crayons.”

3. Cry, and refuse to say why, because it’s nothing, just nothing. This one isn’t specific to Lent. It’s just pretty much the worst thing you can do to a guy.

4. If he persists in his concern, admit that you’ve just been feeling low lately, that’s all, and it would just be nice to get away from these same four walls and this kitchen and these kids and just feel like a woman, you know? Just for one time. Then when he reminds you that he asked you five times if you wanted to go to Chili’s, say, “Oh, I know, I know, but it’s Lent . . .”

5. Complain about female bloggers who talk about fasting when they really mean dieting, and how sick it is that, in society today, all we care about is women’s bodies, and what about their souls? Talk about Cosmo, armpit airbrushing, and how much the actresses in Star Wars got paid. Go into your room to be alone and pray for a while. When he comes in to search for the socks you claim there are plenty of in his drawer if he would just look, let him find you standing there, just gazing at that clingy red sundress you wore to your friend’s wedding two decades ago, back when you considered ice cubes an indulgent snack. Just gazing at it. Then say, “You know, in the Middle Ages, they fasted all the time, all through Lent. Did you know that? Ugh, we’re such wimps nowadays. People really were holier then. Society today really makes me sick.”

You know what, the $5 ‘Rita at Chilis is not half bad. I’ll meet you there, right after confession.

The Bishops’ silence is a scandal in itself

I’m ashamed to admit it, but it’s true: I let myself believe we were past the worst of the sex abuse and cover-up scandal. But it turns out that whole thing in 2002 where we rent our garments and said “never again, never again”? There was a whole layer of garments underneath. There was a whole layer we were holding back, just in case we needed to do some more rending.

So I can’t bring myself to say “never again” this time, because I know there will be more. I know it. I say this not with despair, but just out of painful honesty. We’re not just dealing with the past, and we’re not even just dealing with ongoing problems. We’re looking to the future, and right now, the future does not look like it’s fixing to be any different.

I’ve talked to some laymen who have written to their pastors or to their bishops in the last few days, and these men are surprised to hear that the laity is so upset. Surprised! They are still so insulated, so separated from a normal human response to suffering, so utterly surrounded by like-minded peers dedicated to the cause of not rocking the boat, that they apparently think, “Well, the USCCB has put out a statement. Phew, now we can move on.”

This open letter from prominent young laymen calls for “an independent investigation of who knew what and when, a new intolerance of clerical abuse and sexual sin, and public acts of penance by Catholic bishops.”

It’s intolerable that none of this has happened yet. Intolerable.

As Dawn Eden points out,

the bishops have said they are sorry, but they have not said, as a body, that they were wrong. Without such acknowledgement, our penitential tradition insists, true contrition is not possible.

And without such acknowledgement, we have zero reason to believe that they’re committed to any kind of real change. We’re faithful, not stupid.

It’s not just “our penitential tradition” that insists on acknowledging sin. A reporter once told me that, in states that run successful sex offender and domestic abuser rehabilitation programs, part of the mandatory process is that those convicted must say out loud what they did, every single day. Without this practice, there is no progress.

You can’t change if you don’t want to change, and you won’t want to change until you face the full horror of what you did. Not what someone else made you do, not what people misunderstood you to have done, not what you were unjustly accused of doing, but what you did. You, the guilty one. You, the one who must change.

Some sins are hard to admit. Some sins are horrible to own up to. Some sins will get you locked up or sued if you acknowledge them in public. I get it: This is hard.

But God have mercy, these are our bishops. These are men who hold shepherd’s staffs. What do they think those are for? What do they think their job is, if not to lead by example? Right now, they’re straggling behind the sheep, and that’s a scandal in itself.

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Image altered; from Nationalmuseet [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

THE KING OF THE SHATTERED GLASS is a great exploration of confession for kids

Like a dummy, I misplaced our copy of The King of the Shattered Glass (Marian Press, 2017; affiliate link), but I want to tell you about it now anyway. It would be a great book to read during Lent, and would make a nice Easter present, too.

It’s a picture book appropriate for ages six and up, written by Susan Joy Bellavance and illustrated by Sarah Tang. Basic story: An orphan girl named Marguerite works in the scullery of a medieval king’s castle, when glass is an astonishing novelty. It’s so valuable that the king insists that anyone who breaks his glass must gather up the pieces and bring them to him personally.

Marguerite, an orphan, is a pretty good kid, but on three occasions, she breaks the precious glass — as the blurb says, “through temper, the pride of a dare, and selfishness.” Each time, she has to gather her courage and own up to what she did. It’s not easy, because she’s ashamed, and because she’s afraid of punishment; and eventually, once she comes to actually know the king, and just feels bad that she broke his stuff.

Catholics, you can see where this is headed! The book is a thoughtful allegory for confession; but it works well as a satisfying little story, too.

Marguerite has some penance and growth to do, and eventually the king reveals that he is using all the glass she has shattered to make a gorgeous stained glass window showing himself putting a crown on Marguerite’s head. He then adopts her as his own daughter, and there is rejoicing.

The king, to my great relief, is truly appealing, gentle but strong, and the illustrations successfully suggest divinity (especially Christ as the source of Divine Mercy) without being too heavy-handed. Some of the pictures are more skillful than others, but all are lively and bright, some in black and white, some with deep, saturated colors.

You can download a free pdf of a teacher’s guide, which takes you through the book’s themes:

1. Relationship with God as Father, King and Friend
2. Conscience, a gift to be developed
3. Penance, which brings healing to ourselves and others
4. Jesus, who carries our burdens
5. Adoption and family life; Baptism and Reconciliation.

The King of the Shattered Glass is not the most polished book you will ever encounter in your life, but it works very well, and it’s full of heart and theologically tight as a drum.  Kids will find it memorable and appealing. Recommended!

Bellavance and Tang are collaborating on a second book, to be titled Will You Come to Mass?

 

Oh, the Lents you can Lent!

Bruegel_Lent

Not only do we set the parameters for what we give up (sugar in coffee? A second cup of coffee?  All the coffee?), but we decide what kind of thing we want to give up (or take on) — and why. Here are a few broad categories of ways to observe the penitential season. One or the other may be more spiritually fruitful for you, but none of them is really wrong . . .

 

Read the rest at the Register.

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Lenten Rookie Mistakes

[This post originally ran, in a slightly different form, in the National Catholic Registerin February of 2013.]

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PIC ashes on forehead

 

I feel like I can’t walk ten feet without bumping into an enthusiastic new convert, which is delightful, and so encouraging!  Welcome, everybody!  We papists have a little saying:  Venite intus; horribilis est! 

Heh.  Anyway, you may be looking forward to your first Lent with enthusiasm but some trepidation.  If so, you’re ahead of the game:  it should be something to get excited about.  Lent can be a wonderful source of grace.  But as such, it can be a real mine field of screw-ups, especially for rookies.  Here are some typical rookie mistakes during Lent:

Giving Up All The Things!!!  Don’t forget:  even though it’s Lent, you still have to live the rest of your life.  So it’s probably not wise to take on such a complicated set of obligations and observances that you will need to hire a monk to follow you around, reminding you that you have exactly four minutes to make supper or earn a living before you’re due for your next spiritual reading, or  to pray anther five decades of the rosary, volunteer another half hour at the soup kitchen, say a blessing before, during, and after sneezing, and put a fresh set of dried peas in your shoes, all on four hours of sleep without a pillow and after a breakfast consisting of half a prune.  Just pick one or two things that you can reasonably stick with, or you will burn out and/or drop dead.

Giving up the thing that makes you bearable  Lent is about you doing sacrifices, not making everybody else suffer while they endure your enduring your sacrifice.  If your family sits you down 48 hours into Lent and presents you with a court order demanding that you start smoking or drinking coffee again, then have mercy and listen to them.

Leaving Loopholes As I’m prone to explain shoutily to my lazy, rotten kids, “That’s not cleaning, that’s just moving the mess around!”  You’re not allowed to tidy up your bed by shoving all your junk under the bed.  In the same way, it doesn’t really benefit you much to give up Facebook if you’re suddenly going to become a champion-level Twitterer.  Or if you gave up chocolate, you get no points for diving head first into a vat of caramel.  Substituting toothpicks for cigarettes, or water for beer, is a real penance; substituting YouTube for Netflix, not so much.

Waiting until the last minute for confession  You may think you’re getting the most out of your Lenten Experience by doing one final purge during Holy Week.  This is a horrible mistake.  Unless you want to be on line forever and ever, or unless your priest shows signs that he would like some extra penance by being in that box morning, noon, and night, do try to get to confession before the last minute!  Ideally, you should get to confession more than once during Lent, anyway.  And of course, if you haven’t gotten around to it, later is better than never.  But be aware that many priests do not hear confessions on Good Friday or Holy Saturday.  There’s some dispute over whether or not they’re permitted to hear confessions on those days; but for many overworked priests, there’s simply no time, with all the preparations they must make for the Triduum.

Getting cute about it  The standard observations are standard for a reason.  I know it’s fun to be creative, but it’s kind of obnoxious to give up — I don’t know, adjectives, or clothes that match, or foods with the letter “r” in them.  It might actually work out to be a difficult penance, but come on.   No need to reinvent the wheel.  If you’re a naturally creative person, consider it your penance to bow to the ordinary, and do what everyone else is doing for once.

Getting overly somber about it Yes, it’s a penitential season, when we focus, like no other time of year, on the ugliness of sin, and on the suffering and sorrows Our Lord took on for our sake.  It makes perfect sense to curtail parties and frivolities until after Lent (it’s only 40 days!), and to make our daily lives take on a penitential tone which is unmistakably different from the rest of the year.  But that doesn’t mean you need to quit smiling, or that we can’t enjoy being with friends and family, or listening to the first robin sing.  We’re not Calvinists or Jansenists or any other “ist” that makes us quit being human.

Not getting back on that horse  If you fail, that doesn’t mean you’ve picked the wrong penance, or that you’re incapable of doing penance.  It means you’re a human being.  Duh.  That’s why we need Lent.  Yes, you can back away from penances that turn out to be really disastrous; but don’t quit just because you fail.  God likes it when we try to become holier, but He loves it when we mess up, repent, and try again.  As Jen Fulwiler has pointed out, Lent really starts about halfway through, when the novelty has worn off and you still have to keep on sticking with your dumb old, boring old, purifying old penance.

After reading this list of don’t and more don’ts, do you feel a little taken aback — a little less confident about your powers to turn yourself into a better person?  Are you starting to think that there’s really no way you can make up for your sins on your own, and that you’re going to need ten boatloads of grace from the Holy Spirit to even get through the day, much less forty days straight?

Ah!  Now we’re getting somewhere.