For several years, every Ash Wednesday, I witnessed a curious spectacle: an openly dissenting Catholic lesbian teacher I worked with attended her only Mass of the year, early in the morning, and sported her ashes on her forehead all day, in front of her classes. She fasted and abstained, and we noticed, totally confused but still impressed. I always wondered what this separated sister was proclaiming out the side of her mouth. She was a nervous woman, but for one whole day of the year she beamed calmly.
Many other people who have huge quarrels with the Church’s moral theology, hierarchy, and ecclesiology, to name only three big stumbling blocks, not only make time for this optional weekday Mass but also proclaim their attendance publicly all day long. Around the coffeemaker, they who fume about the burdens of Catholic doctrine all year long discuss avidly their Lenten sacrifices, and I know some loud dissenters who follow through on them.
Ash Wednesday, not even an obligation, is, by my reckoning, more observed than All Saints’ Day, the Feast of the Assumption, and the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. We all know non-Catholics who find time to join in for the imposition of the ashes and its day-long ornamentation. Lent is being recommended by more and more Protestant churches. Traditional Catholicism, which restores old disciplines of fasting and abstinence throughout the year, is growing, even among millenials.
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What is going on? Is the overfed country hungry, not for fish and ashes, but for publicly displayed penitential Catholicism? Are our lives so hyper-saturated with consumerist getting and spending and getting to and from that we ache not merely for humble simplicity but also for public purgation? Has not quotidian existence, and even the gentle yoke of the Gospel, become so easy that believers and non-believers alike strive to practice ostentatious daily reminders that life and the Gospel do indeed require a yoke?
This surprising desire for discipline is something that bishops might seize upon to stoke a dying fire. If they were to require us to follow Lenten-like practices all year long, our pews would not necessarily overflow, but some surfeited souls would jump for relief into the fishermen’s net. With lives so heavy and complicated, the fat and anxious West unconsciously yearns for the evangelical counsel, Lady Poverty, as if wishing to follow the monastic dictum that every day should be a joyful day in Lent. When the world is gouty with riotous excess, fasting becomes a hungry craving for less of everything.
It traditionally teaches us not only to savor time—simple meals prepared from scratch by loving hands, old stories told in electronically silenced rooms, tasks and space shared by deliberately immobilized friends—but also to liberate it from frantic dissipation and noisy desperation. Our supernatural end comes into focus; our world narrowed by unnecessary work expands; we experience leisure and contemplation. From this perspective, we are taught, self-denial is not so much sacrifice as restoring body, heart, mind, and soul to the wise, simple health of the long-lived Desert Fathers.
Even the contemporary secular mind desires simplicity. Henry David’s Thoreau step-by-step description of voluntary poverty in Walden, in order to “put [his accounts] on his thumbnail” in order to “live deliberately” and “suck out all the marrow of life,” “put it to the rout,” and “drive it into a corner,” has been admired and followed by a steady readership for several decades now. Did he invoke the “cenobites” as models for deliberate living, proposing that those leading lives of “quiet desperation” might spend every day like monks? Thoreau descended from Huguenots and despised Roman Catholics, but observed that our gluttonous world is too often like the decadent Roman Empire. There may be no making one’s peace with it, only leaving it to purify it, like Benedict.
In their political philosophy, Plato and Aristotle made the comparison between the city and soul: justice and happiness in the city was analogous to justice and happiness in the soul—good order, each part satisfied to do its work, habitually disposing itself toward human goods, the virtuous regime peopled first with virtuous souls. Lent offers such a re-ordering. What would happen if the world as a whole practiced a “little Lent” 365 days a year? The consumer economy might slow, but a house built on greed is a house of sand. Time might expand. Prices might rise, but superfluities would disappear, and the net result could be more leisure and less superannuated work. The planet might heal, communities coalesce, gardens spring up; is it possible that type-2 diabetes would become extinct and hip replacements diminish? Could the clash of civilizations ease with less pressure to secure crude oil? If the Cistercians can survive on four hours of manual labor a day, resting on Sundays and solemnities, why couldn’t the richest country in the world? Is this a wild, calorie-deprived Lenten dream? If Lent is good for the soul of man, then why would it not be good for the city of man? Is this a low blood sugar hallucination?
Pope Francis’s Laudato Sí, in fact, now nearly makes this little Lent a year-round lifestyle requirement, a moral obligation to be observed in and out of season, in order to care for our “common home” and “sister earth.” The encyclical is replete with Thoreauvian exhortations to live small, to save not only the planet but also our souls: “the accumulation of constant novelties exalts a superficiality” that makes it “difficult to pause and recover depth in life”; he observes that “a constant flood of new products coexists with a tedious monotony” (LS, 113). He calls for “a bold cultural revolution” to overturn a “use and throw away logic” (114, 123) for “a constant flood of new consumer goods can baffle the heart and prevent us from cherishing each thing and each moment” (222). In the section “Towards a New Lifestyle,” he calls for simple personal sacrifices that can be seen as a perpetual, if modest, Lent: turning down the heat and wearing sweaters, foregoing air conditioning, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights, separating refuse, reusing goods, car-pooling, taking the bus, eating less, and avoiding plastic and paper (212). He invokes the authority of, among several other popes and synods (and Orthodox bishops and even a Sufi mystic), Benedict XVI, who in his message on World Day of Peace 2010 also made Lenten-like living a moral imperative: “technologically advanced societies must be prepared to encourage more sober lifestyles, while reducing their energy consumption and improving its efficiency” (193). Combine the apostolic exhortations with the nascent desire for ascetic fellowship, and you might find a quiet revolution in sanity.
Lenten living would not necessarily be dour and grim. The patron saint of this encyclical, as it were, Francis, was, according to G.K. Chesterton, a “joyful ascetic,” for he understood that “the repudiation of the great mass of human joys” is done for the sake of “the supreme joyfulness of the one joy, the religious joy.” Francis was like the happy athlete and artist who do penance for sport and art. Asceticism for Christ is joyful, and Laudato Sí is thus in continuity with Gaudium Evangelii.
An excessive emphasis on inwardly directed and publicly displayed asceticism, however, threatens to miss one additional point of Lenten sacrifice and turn it into yet another self-advertised consumer choice. If we make it only to simplify our cluttered lives, to start a diet, to clean up our dirty souls, and to let the world know it, then it remains partly an activity of willful selfishness and Pharisaism—for our own private good, to be sure, but not in full communion with the Body of Christ. Our personal suffering in penance is believed to reach out mystically to others in need, which of course we do in almsgiving certainly and even in prayer, but it is easy to forget and a little hard to see that fasting also should add a few widow’s mites to the Treasure House of Merit, as it was once called.
For this supernatural act of love to happen, we have to dig deeper than simple personal housecleaning. We must also make an atoning sacrifice, as Azariah says from the fire, of a “contrite heart and a humble spirit … as though it were burnt offering of rams and bullocks” for the Lord. Thus, we cannot forget in a single-minded ascetic practice both the horizontal and the vertical dimensions of our abstinence and let it drop like a sounding gong in the hollow of our selves. As St. Peter Christologus puts it in a passage that appears in the Office of Readings, “Fasting is the soul of prayer; mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. Let no one try to separate them; they cannot be separated.” Imagine the whole world operating like that for even a day; imagine the Year of Mercy accompanied by a year of fasting. That is why Lent is astonishingly sought after: it is when the overdone world is most unlike itself; it is a compliment to Paul VI’s “civilization of love.” Without understanding, even the dissenters, heretics, and “nones” recognize that.