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.

Never As Good?

With some regularity, I have a habit of listening to song lyrics addressing one topic, and seeing how they could be re-interpreted to address another.  In the song “Never As Good As The First Time” for example, pop-jazz singer Sade croons about how nostalgia for the past, the good memories and thoughts of what might have been, always seems better than starting over again with second chances.  “The rose we remember,” she sings, “the thorns we forget.”  I have always thought rather a nice turn of phrase.

Now, this is not merely an excuse for me to plant a song earworm in your head, gentle reader.  Rather, I would like you to consider whether in the present age, we increasingly look at the world around us as a series of compartmentalized experiences of either roses or thorns, when the truth is that both are essential parts of the whole.  This is true not only in the romantic, as this pop song points out, but also in the broader questions of life reflecting on society as a whole, and our role within it.

This weekend I had three separate, rather long conversations with three different friends in three different cities and time zones, about the question of living out one’s purpose in life. When one is no longer young but not old YET, as Mac and Katherine Barron like to put it on the “Catholic in a Small Town” podcast, certain doors are closed. It is almost guaranteed that if you are now over 30 and have never played tennis in years, you will not now be able to dethrone Roger Federer from the top of the heap. At the same time, you are not going to be toddling your way down the hallway on a Zimmer frame for many, many years yet, so to become despondent over this realization would be the height of self-obsession.

One thing which came to light during all three of these conversations was a common perspective of a sense of uncertainty about the future, as compared to what people experienced in the past. Grandfather started working for a certain company as a young man, and stayed there for decades until his retirement, when he received his gold watch and his pension. That world in many places is already long gone; those of us in Gen X or Gen Y will most likely never experience it.  Yet however much we may bemoan the death of some of the virtues which made Grandfather’s life seemingly more certain, we compartmentalize what he went through in the Depression and World War II.

This present life promises us only one absolute, unavoidable truth, and that is that there are always going to be barbarians at the gate. It may be illness, or heartbreak, or disappointment, but it will indeed come, with the ultimate reward of leaving this life entirely.  What has happened in the Western world is particular in the second half of the 20th century, is that a majority grew up not really knowing what it was like to be hungry and cold, stalked by disease, armies, or other predators.

This is why what we see going on in places like Ireland, Spain, or Greece is so shocking to many of us in the West, even though the kinds of misery we presently see are as nothing compared to what people in the Third World go through all the time, with no hope of relief.  It is also why the Third World in so many respects is much tougher than the First: for they expect disappointment, and while they hope they will make it through today, they have no illusions that they will be cheating suffering and death of their due.  We have grown too lazy in assuming that comfort is something we are entitled to, rather than privileged to receive.

Yesterday at mass Monsignor used the Gospel reading as a jumping-off point for the exploration of these ideas of uncertainty and suffering.  We are no doubt familiar with Christ’s rebuke of St. Peter who, shortly after declaring Jesus to be the Son of God, then takes Him aside to upbraid Him for talking about His forthcoming suffering and death.  Christ then turns on him and rebukes him in front of the other disciples, warning them that if they expected to be His followers, they were going to have to accept suffering.  In his homily, Monsignor pointed out that no one likes to talk about the experience of uncertainty and suffering, or ultimately death, but Christ tells us that it is in how we accept our trials that we prove our worth.

This was further echoed in the reading at Lauds this morning, for the great Jewish heroine Judith points out to her people in the midst of a terrible crisis that:

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God who, as he tested our ancestors, is now testing us. Remember how he treated Abraham, all the ordeals of Isaac and all that happened to Jacob. For as these ordeals were intended by him to search their hearts, so now this is not vengeance that God exacts against us, but a warning inflicted by the Lord on those who are near his heart.

Judith 8: 25-26, 27

Returning to Sade, who of course is speaking of romantic love in this song rather than about the overall purpose of one’s life, reflection on what might have been and what is “rightfully” ours is a deadly exercise.  Too many spend their lives trying to recapture a moment when everything seemed wonderful and new. Or they use the irritation of suffering and loss in their lives, in the mistaken belief that by so doing they are making some sort of pearl, when in reality they are merely creating an ulcer which will eventually perforate. The line between the formation of each of these is very slim, indeed.

There is of course nothing pleasant about experiencing pain, suffering, setbacks, and loss, but we will experience all of them. If you believe that you will have everything easy in your life from now on, you are exceedingly naive and ill-prepared for what lies ahead.  Better to stay focused on the task ahead, of using your gifts and abilities for the greater good of others, in recognition of and preparation for the life to come.  It may not always be as good as the first time one experiences that thrill of something good – a first dance, a first touchdown, a first job, a first apartment – but at least we will take the future as it comes, without staying stuck in the past.

Still from the video for “Never As Good As The First Time” by Sade

Learning Life from the American Cemetery

I was saddened recently to see the state of one of the historic cemeteries in my neighborhood of Georgetown, of which I became aware in a post by Topher Matthews over at The Georgetown Metropolitan. The Mount Zion United Methodist Church/Female Union Band Cemetery is located on 27th and Q Streets NW, here in the nation’s capital, and as you can see from the photograph is in rather a sorry state; a similar situation exists at the Holy Rood Cemetery on Wisconsin Avenue, just outside of Georgetown proper but owned by Georgetown University, which has let the place run to ruin. While graveyards may not be, for many of us, a place where we care to linger, their continued existence in large American cities serves both an educational and a moral purpose, worthy of our preservation.

One of the features of the urban landscape in many parts of the country is the old church graveyard, something which  European visitors have observed to me as being a particularly unusual historical survival. While cemeteries and churchyards containing graves are common in rural locations on both continents, in many cities in the United States and in the Old World beginning in the 19th century, they disappeared from downtown areas by being paved over or moved into the suburbs. Oftentimes this led to the creation of large, landscaped parks specially set aside for the purpose, such as the Montjuich Cemetery along Barcelona’s waterfront, or Highgate Cemetery in London.

There are certainly many logical, practical reasons why cemeteries are no longer located in the midst of inner cities, though their rarity is really not such a new development as is their near-total absence. The burial of most of the dead outside of city centers has always been a feature of human civilization. We can look for example at the magnificently decorated Egyptian tombs located in remote deserts; the various Mosaic laws regarding burial contained in the Torah; the funeral practices of the Ancient Romans, including the building of the catacombs as virtual cities of the dead; or the attempts by medieval towns during the Plague to keep the living and healthy away from the dead and dying, by sending the latter far away to die or be buried.

Yet even though most people were not buried in the centers of the towns in which they lived, there were always some cemeteries located in the hearts of our cities, whether inside of churches and hospitals themselves, or located on their grounds. Last week, for example, I wrote about some religious art created for a cemetery in Belgium, which was considered to be so exceptional that pilgrimages to visit it were encouraged by Rome; unfortunately, the art and the cemetery disappeared during the Napoleonic period. That disappearance, along with the disappearance of countless other urban gravesites from downtown areas, is a phenomenon that deserves to be questioned, for there does seem to be a rather curious political and sociological coalescence which has lead both to the removal of the graveyard from the city, and the rising tide of secularism.

Beginning with the Enlightenment, continuing under the development of secular, civil law in both its American and European versions, and finally through the coming to power of various strains of socialism, not only has religion been pushed out of the public square, but so has Death itself. The worship of God has been replaced, initially by the worship of man, and finally by the worship of the self. We do not want to be reminded of our mortality, by seeing the graves of those who were unable to escape their own, when there is so much hedonistic pleasure and self-indulgence which we can have today without giving a thought to what will happen tomorrow. The reader is certainly welcome to disagree with me, but I do wonder whether the removal and neglect of our cemeteries in urban centers is not one of the best indicators of the horrific level of selfishness we have sunk to in the present day.

For those of us who live and work and cities, where the focus tends to be on materialistic concerns such as the obtaining of wealth or power for personal gain, the visual presence of a cemetery can be a powerful witness of the inevitability of Death. No matter how successful we may become, in the end all will turn to rot and ruin; there is no way to prevent this. While focusing on that fact too much can lead to nihilism, or sitting in the closet cutting yourself whilst reading the “Twlight” saga, I believe there is something very beneficent about taking the time to remember that man is dust, and unto dust he shall return. A society which cannot face Death, cannot face old age, nor physical frailty, nor physical deformity, nor ugliness, nor poverty, nor suffering, with anything approaching charity, decency, or empathy.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with being successful, or having nice things, or wanting to look your best. Yet it is the spirit with which one views these things that we need to take issue, for none of it is going to keep Death away from the door, when the time comes. Death is, after all, the great leveler of all things, and Americans would be well-served by being reminded of this fact on a more regular basis.  I wonder how much of our time, talents, and treasure we waste trying to delude ourselves into thinking that we are never going to grow old and die: no doubt the reasonable dollar figure would be staggering.

Turning back to where we began, the very sorry state of these two graveyards in Georgetown certainly deserves our criticism. It is disrespectful to the memory of those who are buried there, but also indicative of a very unhealthy attitude toward Death on the part of those charged with the upkeep of these places.  And particularly given the fact that these are religious, rather than civic cemeteries, their respective religious communities should be scandalized by this inexcusable negligence.

On a more personal note, I would suggest that for my readers who are willing, take advantage of a visit to the cemetery you pass on the way to work or school, even if you do not have any connection with the people buried there. For one day, you will have a very obvious connection with them, whether you like it or not. Reminding yourself of that fact from time to time, even if only by a brief stroll through the grounds, may go a long way toward helping you gain some perspective, and a healthy dose of realism to counteract the bitter pill of contemporary selfishness.

Some of the toppled gravestones at Holy Rood Cemetery, Georgetown