Why You Need Both Give-Ups AND Take-Ons For Lent

For those of you who follow me on social media, you should be aware that I’ll be absent from Facebook, FB Messenger, Instagram, SnapChat, Twitter, and WhatsApp during Lent. (I think that’s all of them, whew!) You’ll still see blog posts like these, since they post automatically across my social media accounts once I publish them. And you’ll see me around the social media feeding trough come Sundays, catching up with what I’ve missed. However for the most part, I won’t be around online the next few weeks.

There are very good arguments to be made for *not* giving up social media for Lent.  In fact, Allison Gingras makes a few good ones here. Certainly, if you make your living in media – which I don’t – there’s no sense in giving up social media, which is an inherent component, these days, of most media careers. We hardly read anything printed on paper, any more, and audio or video appearances are more widely distributed through social media.

However in my case, social media has, at times, become an occasion of sins, plural, so it’s a good time to step away. Now, this doesn’t mean I’m going to come back after Easter and start being nice to Planned Parenthood, the Kardashians, or Lena Dunham: they get what they get. What it does mean is, I’m going to be doing some substitution, as I remove social media from the daily routine, to hopefully come back better than I was.

I’ll say that, over the years, I’ve found that “give-ups” aren’t enough for Lent. You’ve got to replace them with something else. We each get into a repeating pattern in our lives, so that when some aspect of that pattern is altered or removed, we feel out of balance. Despite what you may have heard to the contrary from contemporary thought gurus, human beings prefer order and structure to chaos and uncertainty.

So when we remove one thing from the everyday, we have to replace it with something else. I made a list of “give-ups” for this Lent, which are counterbalanced by a list of “take-ons”. In other words, for each thing I give up, I’m taking on something else to replace it, such as prayer, a corporal work of mercy, etc. For me, this method tends to work better than simply giving up something I like, with no other thought than the countdown to Easter Sunday when I can have it again.

Let me give you an example. Suppose you’re a sports junkie, and you watch several hours of games a week. What about looking ahead on the sporting calendar, marking off a match each week that you want to see but that you will give up, and using the time slot you would have spent watching a game for slowly and thoughtfully reading your Bible? Or what if, supposing you’re giving up soda for Lent, you calculate what you would otherwise spend each week on that Diet Coke, and then make out a check to a religious order or charitable organization for that amount, picking a different one each week?

That’s what I mean about balancing things out: the give-up must be matched by a take-on. It’s when things are imbalanced that we eventually tip over into failure, whether that’s eating too much, exercising too much, or yes, being on social media too much. I think the key point to remember is that you’re not supposed to give up sweets or take on jogging during Lent because it’s easier to do that in late Winter or early Spring than it is in January. You’re supposed to be doing this because it draws you closer to Christ. Otherwise, you might as well just go follow Oprah, with whatever weight-loss scheme or self-help author she is interested in promoting (and profiting from) this week.

Christians are to follow Christ, and no one else – and His path is one marked by both suffering and hope. “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead,” we say at Mass, during the Creed. But do we really? Because in order to experience that, we’re going to have to take up our cross, follow Him, and die, in order to experience new life with Him.

If you believe what you claim to believe, as a Christian, then make this Lent one in which you die to yourself, and rise to Him – perhaps in ways more profound than you can imagine, as you stand on the threshold of the season.

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This Weekend: Music And Liturgy After Vatican II

For those of you in the DC area interested in beautiful music, and particularly in the idea of having beautiful music as part of the liturgy – which, since the 1960’s, has been something of a foreign concept – I invite you to join us at St. Stephen Martyr in Foggy Bottom this weekend and next, for a two-part lecture on how the post-Conciliar Church should and could be using music in worship. The lectures will be given by our Music Director at St. Stephen’s, Neil Weston, and will be held at about 12:15 pm in the Parish Hall. Perhaps you will also consider joining us for the 11:00 am Mass upstairs beforehand, to hear Neil and our Parish Choir in action, since Catholic or not, you are very welcome.

Neil studied at Oxford, the University of London, and the Royal College of Music, and as a conductor and soloist has performed in many venues in Europe and America, including here at the National Cathedral, the Basilica of the National Shrine, and the Kennedy Center. Among other awards to date, he won the American Guild of Organists’ National Competition in Organ Improvisation, and has played on numerous solo and ensemble recordings. Every week at the 11am Sunday Mass, he and our choir help make the liturgy a truly beautiful, uplifting experience, enhancing rather than distracting from the worship of God by the use of their musical gifts.

At the risk of embarassing an Englishman, since they are not an effusive sort of people, I will say that every week I stay behind after the Recessional Hymn at Mass to hear what Neil is going to play, as people shuffle their way out. As you can hear in this example of his solo performance, recorded at St. Stephen’s and showing both Neil and the church, there is a joyful dexterity in his style and wonderful acoustics in the building itself. Neil plays and conducts an enormous variety of music, from the familiar to the unknown, the classical to the contempoary, but always with exceptional good taste and a sense of decorum as to what is suitable for the liturgy.

You can also hear a sample of Neil and our choir at St. Stephen’s performing together in this video, recorded during the Offertory at the 11:00 am Mass on January 10th of this year. I apologize for the quality of the recording which, since it was made on my phone, is not studio-grade. However more to the point of this post, as well as to the lectures which Neil will be giving, this was not music for a major feast day, like Christmas or Easter, but just a normal Sunday Mass. This of course begs the question, if as a rather small parish of only about 500 permanent members St. Stephen’s can make the effort to have a beautiful liturgy like this, every week, why cannot other, larger and welathier parishes do the same?

Hope to see you there this weekend and next, and if you spot me, please drop by and say hello!

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Everything Is Not Awesome: We Need Penance More Than Butterflies

As part of the Year of Mercy declared by Pope Francis, this Tuesday the façade of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican was illuminated with a slideshow projection entitled “Fiat Lux”. Inspired by Pope Francis’ recent encyclical “Laudatio Si”, and timed to coordinate with the UN Climate Change conference taking place in Paris, the light show featured enormous images of animals, nature, and so on, put together to draw attention to the environment. You can watch a lengthy video of the display by following this link.  

It is not easy to be a commentator and cultural critic when, as in my case, you are not a particularly good one, and you happen to be a practicing but bad Catholic, besides. There are many moments when, as a writer, you are torn between being nice, and being truthful. There are also many moments as a Catholic when you know that something is wrong, but you do not want to hurt someone else’s feelings because you want to be thought of as a nice chap.

We Catholics have been playing nice, rather than actually practicing our religion, for quite a long time now, of course. This is not Pope Francis’ fault: the majority of Western Catholics had already taken the position that it was better to be nice than to be truthful long before he was elected. In fact, in many instances they were encouraged to hold to such a view by their own priests and bishops, who told them not to worry so much about their sins, because they were fundamentally nice people – as if being nice was the moral equivalent of being conceived without original sin.

As a result, this high-level espousal of what we might call a “smile and you’re saved” mentality which seems to dominate the Church in the West, has filtered from the hierarchy all the way down to the individual parishioner. Sunday after Sunday (when they actually bother to show up), Catholics are fed a kind of chicken soup theology, more appropriate for First-Graders who have not yet made their First Communion, in which the only real sin one can commit is that of not being nice to oneself or others. In essence, it seems as though we are all expected to join in a chorus proclaiming how, “Everything Is Awesome”, including ourselves.

Except that everything is NOT awesome.

The harvest of planting generations of niceness instead of orthodoxy in the Church is all too readily apparent in both Europe and the United States, which have become like the fields choked by weeds of which Christ speaks in the Gospels (see, e.g. St. Matthew 13: 3-29, 36-43). One need only consider the widespread practices among Catholics of contraception, cohabitation, and abortion; low Mass attendance; liturgical abuses; sexual abuse and promiscuity among the clergy and religious; the closure of churches, schools, and monasteries; etc. Viewed purely from a cultural aspect, Catholicism is a mess, and it has become so, at least in part, by forgetting that man is not saved from damnation by being nice. It seems bizarre, when looking at the state of the Church in the Western world, that we continue to pursue niceness as being some sort of an addition to the Seven Spiritual Works of Mercy.

I am most definitely not a theologian, nor do I pretend to be. Yet as an average, pew-sitting Catholic, a position which incidentally does not require me to hold an STL, I cannot for the life of me begin to understand when the idea of being nice came to supplant the actual duty of those in positions of knowledge and authority – priests, bishops, and yes, popes – to admonish sinners, instruct the ignorant, and counsel the doubtful. If you cannot recall the last time your parish priest or bishop preached on the nature and eternal effects of unrepentant mortal sin if one fails to seek out God’s Mercy, you are not alone. It is important, therefore, in this Year of Mercy, to understand what exactly mercy is, and what it is not.

Being nice is not synonymous with being merciful, any more than being merciful is synonymous with being compassionate. Compassion is the responsibility of all, Christian or otherwise, to aid those who are suffering. Mercy is something else entirely – and it is not about being nice to others. By definition, mercy implies the forgiveness of an underlying state of punishable sin, a forgiveness which is only possible where there is not only an understanding of what sin is, but a recognition of one’s being in a state of sin, coupled with the intent on the part of the sinner to turn away from and repudiate the sinful life they have been living. Conflating mercy with compassion, if you’ll pardon the expression, is not very nice, for the eternal consequences are far more dire.

Remember that Christ saved the soul of St. Dismas, a.k.a. “The Good Thief”, not because Jesus was nice, but because the man was a sinner who sought forgiveness. St. Dismas recognized, at the eleventh hour, that what he really needed was God’s eternal forgiveness, more than he needed man’s temporal approbation. Despite suffering in physical agony and humiliation in a public execution, he still had the faith to call out and ask Christ to forgive him and be merciful to him. And Christ gave him the promise which I hope against hope to hear when the time comes: “This day, you will be with Me in Paradise.”

Now don’t get me wrong from the title of this piece: I love butterflies. I used to chase them and study them when I was little, examining them closely before I would free them. They are wonderful creatures. The fact that pollution has grown so much worse that populations of creatures like butterflies are collapsing is a terrible thing. We can and should all agree that the abuse of God’s Creation is a sin, and Pope Francis is right to call attention to it, even if it was unfortunate that he chose to do so in such a tacky (and arguably sacrilegious) way.

Yet just imagine if the Year of Mercy had been kicked off at St. Peter’s, not with a light show to draw the attention and approbation of the international press, but rather with hundreds of priests hearing confessions, with the Holy Father giving sermons on the fatal nature of mortal sin, and conducting interviews explaining why it is important to be reconciled to God through the sacraments. Now that would have been really…nice.

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