Lent and Its Discontents

I did push-ups, eschewed alcohol, and went on a bread-and-oatmeal fast--but I didn't overcome my self-centeredness.

The small, traditional college I attended, Thomas Aquinas in Santa Paula, Calif., was a spiritual greenhouse, a place where religious flora, imported from all sorts of environs, could flourish in a protective Catholic atmosphere. There I encountered practices, beliefs, and traditions that had withered away in the more arid post-Vatican II climes of my upbringing. In that place, I had found new zeal for the faith.

When Lent of freshman year arrived, I was ready to turn that zeal toward self-denial. This year, I would partake of a true fast. My friend Francis and I went on a bread and oatmeal diet—four slices of Orowheat Honey Wheat Berry bread for breakfast, four slices for lunch, and a bowl of oatmeal for dinner. Only water to drink. At midnight on Saturday, as the “little Easter” of Sunday began, we would call the local Domino’s Pizza. Francis, a man of enormous stature and appetite, once put away two large pizzas during our celebratory binge. I was stuffed after one.

Those who discussed their chosen penances—and a bunch of us did—fell into three groups. Some were purists who didn’t take Sundays off. My group called them rigorists and told them to count the days from Ash Wednesday to Easter. The only way to get the traditional 40 days of Lent was by leaving Sundays out. Others started their Sunday celebration after the vigil Mass late Saturday afternoon, giving them all Saturday night to indulge. They argued that if the vigil Mass fulfilled your Sunday Mass obligation, then Sunday was under way, liturgically speaking. Wasn’t Lent over after the Vigil on Holy Saturday? I couldn’t bring myself to join them, but I had no real argument to offer. I, after all, allowed myself to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, along with the Solemnity of St. Joseph and the feast of the Annunciation. According to one of the school’s more traditional souls, I was right in thinking that penance was not to be observed during the latter two feasts, but St. Paddy’s was my own invention.

Starting sophomore year I gave up alcohol. By then, it was something I loved enough to miss. I also tried an early-morning regimen of push-ups, sit-ups, and jogging alongside the highway that led to campus, a hilly, winding, mile-long circuit. This was splendid penance. I detested exercise outside of athletic games, gagged on the sulfuric smell from a nearby mountain as it mixed with the hot exhaust of passing cars, and faltered daily on the uphill return to campus. A pulled hamstring during a soccer game put an end to my suffering. I was grateful to be hobbled.

Those attempts at mortification were not useless; they were honest efforts toward letting my faith have an impact on my daily life. But while the flesh was willing, the spirit was weak. Mine were feats of endurance, not charity. It showed in the way I talked about them with friends, not exactly flaunting them in public to show my holiness but still eager for my intimates to know my struggles. “Gosh, this Lent thing is tough, no?” I was gutting it out, sucking it up, struggling toward the relief of Easter, when I would offer Christ my sacrifice-scrubbed soul.


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