An Imperfect Lent: The Sons of Thunder

If you were to walk into my living room at any given moment, you would never find a thing out of place. In my bedroom however, where no one visits except The Cat, things can easily become something of a mess if I let things go too long. Mail and opened packages get strewn across the desk where I hardly ever write anything. The window bench becomes a towering pile of sweaters and jeans that need to be folded and put away.

I began this Lenten season with an enormous clear-out, putting everything away in its proper place, and carrying out tons of trash. It helped that we had a blizzard here in DC, where I was trapped in the house for nearly 5 days, so that I could take my time in carrying out this task. With everything rationalized and clean, I felt like I had visually shown myself what I hoped to do with my interior life this Lent.

As part of my Lenten sacrifices I gave up many of my favorite things: social media, coffee and cigarettes, sweets, and fried foods. In their place, I was supposed to take a number of things. Among these, I was going to find time for nightly prayer, I would send a donation each week to a different Catholic charitable group, and I would even make a herculean effort to go out on at least one date, something I’ve not done since last summer.

The end result of all of this has been imperfect, and I can tell because, quelle surprise, my desk and window seat are all cluttered again. I’ve cheated on a few of my give-ups. For example, I was briefly on Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp yesterday, and I will admit to having some sweets and fried foods during the weekdays. Although I must confess, the cookies at the office cafeteria are sinful objects in and of themselves. I’m sure that they are baked in the deepest, hottest ovens of Hell, until they have just mixture of softness and slight saltiness in the dough.

Neither have I accomplished all of the take-ons I set out to do. On one hand the almsgiving has gone well, since that just involves writing a check a week, but nightly prayer didn’t exactly happen, at least not in the way I had intended. I didn’t go on any dates, but then I didn’t run into anyone I was interested in taking out, either – which is admittedly an excuse, rather than a legitimate justification.    

You could look at this and say that I’ve failed – except that I don’t see it that way.

What Lent brings home is the fact of both our imperfection, and our need to be grateful to God for His Mercy. In recognizing that we are imperfect, you and I realize that we are no different from the woman caught in adultery, whom we heard about in this past Sunday’s Gospel. I, too, am an adulterer, a glutton, a murderer, a thief, a bully, a layabout, a hothead, a liar, and all the rest. So are you, if you’ll pardon me for pointing out that fact. We don’t deserve to be forgiven for what we’ve done, nor for what horrible things we’ll probably do in the future.

Similarly, in the Passion according to St. Luke that we will be reading at the Gospel this coming Palm Sunday, we hear two of the Apostles are armed and ready with swords, and ready to fight for Jesus, before He goes out into the Garden of Gethsemane. Given their gung-ho nature, I suspect the two were the brothers Zebedee, St. James and St. John, whom Jesus nicknamed “The Sons of Thunder”. Yet they, too, like the rest, all melted away in the garden before the temple authorities, because they were weak and imperfect. It is only later, at the foot of the Cross and after the Resurrection, that they admit their weakness and thereby come into their own.  

When we, too, realize our weaknesses, we are also given the opportunity to realize how grateful we must be that He loves and saves us anyway, despite our imperfections. Through Lenten sacrifice, we learn how weak we are, but we also learn how generous God is. In coming to grips with our own inconstancy, we become aware of what scrawny little things we are on the inside, while at the same time we become aware of how infinitely strong He is, even as He puts up with our cringing and whining and excuses.

So my view is, if you have come to a greater realization of your own imperfection and utter dependence this Lent, count yourself as fortunate. Without Him, we cannot persevere in the self-imposed trials of the Lenten season, any more than we can hope to persevere in what life throws at us, from cradle to grave. For our hope, despite all of our imperfections during Lent and otherwise, is that the grave is not our end – He is.


Sts. James and John, detail from a panel by Pere Serra (1385)

DC Lent Events: Two Upcoming Opportunities

Date: Saturday, March 12th
Time: 7:00-8:00 pm
Location: St. Dominic’s (L’Enfant Plaza)

I’ve written about events at beautiful St. Dominic’s Parish before, such as in this piece for New Liturgical Movement, and its splendid NeoGothic architecture has been featured on my Instagram account. Now the Dominican Friars are pleased to invite you to attend their second annual Lenten service titled “Passiontide”. And there is an old skool-style video game – I kid you not – that the Friars have invented to get you interested in attending:

There’s a huge candlelit vigil at St. Dominic’s Church called Passiontide. Preaching, chanting, and Lenten readings by the Dominican Friars. A large celebration follows. Sat March 12 at 7pm. Here’s a VIDEO GAME about the event. RSVP here. Help with food and setup is welcome.

You can see some really beautiful photographs from last year’s Passiontide service here.

Last weekend I got to hang out with the Dominican Friars at Dominican House and eat a mountain of tater tots, which has NO bearing on my plugging this event for them, none at all. However I want to encourage you to take that extra step this Lent, even if you already plan to attend the Triduum, and do something a bit different, that stretches you out a bit more and challenges you to make this your best Lent yet. Here is a wonderful opportunity to do just that.

Stations of the Cross and Friday Fish Fry
Date: Friday, March 11th and 18th
Time: 6:30-9:30 PM
Location: Epiphany Parish (Georgetown)

Father Adam Park, one of the most enthusiastic young priests whom you will ever meet, hosts this weekly event at historic Epiphany Parish in Georgetown during Lent. The traditional practice of the Stations of the Cross is held in this pretty, Italianate church, built in the 1920’s, and is followed by a Friday Fish Fry supper afterwards. I ran into Fr. Park yesterday at the Newman Center on campus at GWU, where he has two hours of Eucharistic Adoration followed by Mass, every weekday beginning at 4:00pm, and he reminded me that this prayerful but enjoyable evening deserves my attention. And as I see it, it also deserves yours.

There is always a smart and interesting group at the evening, which is particularly popular among DC-area young professionals, and it is a good place to meet new people. More importantly however, it allows us to take time out on a Friday and walk with Christ, retracing His steps on that Good Friday 2,000 years ago. As He carries His Cross, we pause to pray and meditate along the way, reminding ourselves of His sacrifice.

For practical information, you can visit Epiphany Parish’s website. There are only two of these evenings remaining on the calendar, because we are getting to the end of the Lenten season already. Again, you don’t want to miss the opportunity to do something more this Lent!


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.