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.

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My spirit was (is) Pelagian. Among other things, Pelagius argued that the first move in the romance between God and man was man’s to make. Sophomore year I read as St. Augustine carefully dismantled Pelagius’s claim that man’s will can avail him anything without the grace of God. I read, as if for the first time, Paul’s rhetorical question, “What have you that you did not receive?” Life is a gift. Redemption is a gift. Faith is a gift. As I jogged along, gasping for wind, I repeated to myself, “What will you do for Christ, who has done all things for you?” I wanted to give something back, namely, the cramp in my side and the ache in my legs. But if Christ had done all, what could I do? The question of grace and free will is a thorny one, but I know my own case. I know that in times of suffering, self-imposed or otherwise, I look first to myself. God is the backup, to be called upon when I find myself insufficient.

Lent 1999 showed the folly of that notion. Ash Wednesday came and went amid a morass of work-related troubles. When my parents flew out from New York to visit for a week, a black mood settled over me. I was touchy, frustrated, and sulky—thoroughly unpleasant company. My mother gently reminded me of St. John of the Cross’s exhortation: “One prayer of thanksgiving when things go badly is worth a thousand when things go well.”

She encouraged me to praise the Lord at all times. I responded with impatience, even anger. Why was it hard to hear a suggestion from a parent whose love was unquestioned, a suggestion that I seek help from the surest source? Why did I hold on to my suffering, trying to grit my teeth and pull myself out? Pride, pride of a masculine sort. “It’s important for men to pray,” said Mom. “To submit themselves to Christ.”

I have assented to this thought for some time, but I have not managed to send it over the gap between intellect and will. When I was confirmed at age fifteen, I took St. John the Baptist as my confirmation saint. “A voice crying out in the wilderness,” I thought, full of adolescent pride. I would preach to my generation, lead them back to the faith they had never really known. By Lent of 2003, a little older and a little more humble—if only as a result of years of sin and failure to do much crying out—I found myself dwelling more on another of the Baptist’s lines: “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

I began to dread the inevitable question from the priest at the holy season’s end: “Have you drawn closer to Christ these past 40 days?” Has He increased; have you decreased? Do you think of His supreme sacrifice every time you find yourself thirsting for a self-denied Manhattan cocktail? Have you even been able to explain to your curious son why it is good to give things up for Lent?

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