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.

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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