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.

Phone Booth Friday: Making Heroic Choices

For the past few years I’ve had the privilege of calling Mike Gannon my friend. I had the good fortune to meet him via social media, and although we’ve only had the chance to meet in person a couple of times since, the first time we did he gave me a terrific gift: a book surveying Superman’s comic book adventures in the 1970’s.  Not everyone “gets” why I find the superhero genre fun and informative, but Mike certainly does.

During that time Mike has been trying to find his way in the world, after having faced a number of challenges in his life.  Fortunately, he seems to have hit upon the right path, as he explains in this post detailing his arrival at this next, momentous point.  For tomorrow, Mike is joining the Discalced Carmelite Friars, more popularly known as the Carmelites, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  During his initial period there, known as the “Postulancy”, he will not have access to social media, and so I wanted to take this moment while I still can, to wish him well as he takes a truly heroic step this Phone Booth Friday.

I think the perception among many non-Catholics, and perhaps among some Catholics as well, is that joining a religious order and going off to live in a monastery or convent is a decision to run away from the world.  Yet ask anyone who actually knows men and women who make this kind of choice, and you will be quickly corrected of that misconception.  To spend your days trying to draw closer to God in prayer and in a life of service to Him and others, whether that be within the walls of an enclosure or out and about in the world performing selfless acts, is to strip away all of the things that distract us from a singular fate shared by all human beings, regardless of their race or creed.

All of this “stuff”, in the material world that surrounds us, is useless if it’s not something that brings us closer to God.  Christ tells us repeatedly in the Gospels that although it is not impossible, it is very difficult for the materially rich to enter the Kingdom of God, if they are weighed down and burdened by their material possessions and concerns. No matter how successful you may become in your chosen profession, or how many awards, investments, cars, homes, and other indications of status you may have, at the end of the day you will be forced to relinquish all of it, and go and meet your Maker.  Hopefully you will do so peacefully, in your own bed at home and after a long, full life unmarked by loss, illness, or pain.  For most however, that reckoning will occur under less pleasant circumstances.

In choosing to strip away the things that could stand as obstacles in the way to his love of God and following his Faith, Mike is making a truly heroic decision, although I daresay he would not categorize it as such.  The plain and scratchy robe of the Carmelite friar does not have the sheen and protective qualities of a superhero suit.  And yet at the same time, it’s more beautiful and more real than any suit of futuristic materials that Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark could come up with.

What will happen in the coming weeks and months for Mike I do not know.  My hope is that the Carmel will be everything he wanted and more.  He will be working that out as he goes, and he needs our prayers and support as he does so.  The choice to stop living for oneself, and start living for God and others, is not easy.

Saving kittens stuck in trees or planets from annihilation is all very well in superhero fiction. These stories remind us of the virtue of heroic selflessness, and putting oneself at risk in order to help others, by saving them from material distress.  Yet through his pursuit of the religious life, Mike hopes to do something even more important, albeit in a humble, prayerful way, by trying to save souls.  I wish him Godspeed in his journey, and ask my readers to please keep him in your prayers.

With Mike Gannon (L) and Channing Dale (C) and "Superman in the '70's" book

With Mike Gannon (L) and Channing Dale (C) and “Superman in the ’70’s” book


A Lenten Facebook Fast

Tomorrow being the beginning of the liturgical season of Lent, for the next six weeks or so many Christians around the world prepare themselves spiritually for the sacrifice that Christ made on Good Friday, when we believe He died for our sins, rising from the dead on Easter Sunday.  In keeping with the penitential and sacrificial nature of these weeks, many will give up things they enjoy for this period.  They will do so to try to find a way to suffer a bit, and reflect better on Christ’s own suffering, even if only in a small way.

This year I’ve decided to give up Facebook for Lent, something I’ve not done before, but have seen others do over the years. I am sure the withdrawal symptoms will be difficult, although the only real practical issue, i.e. blog publication across my social media platforms, is handled through the WordPress app. Thus, even though I won’t be “on” Facebook, posts will continue to appear each weekday.

I’ve also decided to take a slightly moderated view of the old “no reprieve” versus “Sundays don’t count” debate.  There is an age-old argument among my fellow Catholics as to whether one can return to one’s “give-ups” on Sundays during Lent.  The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops answers the question for us thusly:

Q. So does that mean that when we give something up for Lent, such as candy, we can have it on Sundays?

A. Apart from the prescribed days of fast and abstinence on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and the days of abstinence every Friday of Lent, Catholics have traditionally chosen additional penitential practices for the whole Time of Lent. These practices are disciplinary in nature and often more effective if they are continuous, i.e., kept on Sundays as well. That being said, such practices are not regulated by the Church, but by individual conscience.

Sounds a bit like they’re dodging the question, doesn’t it? In truth, there’s good reason for such careful language, as we shall see.

Those of you giving up a food you like for Lent know how difficult that can be. One Lent I gave up coffee, which was pretty brutal, though perhaps the worst food give-up for me was when I gave up potatoes. I went so far as to check the labels of foods I bought to make sure there was no potato starch or the like in them.  Turns out we use potatoes in prepared foods in this country almost as much as we use corn-derived products, by the way.

However the danger withsuch practices is getting to the point with our Lenten give-ups that we risk creating a compulsion out of what is supposed to be a pious act.  In their answer to the question about Sundays in Lent, the bishops suggest that we have to make our own decisions, with respect to whatever practice we take on during this season.  There is no requirement that one even have a “give-up”, after all, even if it is encouraged.  The rules on these are not imposed from without, but rather from within: this is a time for personal growth, not a contest to see who can suffer the most.

Even when giving rules for practices which are in fact required during Lent, the Church does not impose a draconian standard.  For example, although fasting for adults is mandated for Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, that rule does not apply to the seriously ill, pregnant, or those with a medical condition requiring them to eat at certain times (e.g. diabetics.)  Manual laborers are also exempt under certain circumstances, since no one wants an ironworker on the 49th floor of a construction site to become light-headed from not eating.  Consideration is even given to those who are required to attend a social or business function, who cannot get out of said event without causing serious offense or negative repercussions.

When it comes to Facebook, which I use  a lot – and not only for fun, either – it will be hard for me to adjust to daily life without it.  It is certainly not my only outlet for connecting with a wider world, but it is an important way for me to keep up with what is going on with my family, close friends, and local contacts.  It has also introduced me to, or allowed me to assist, many people I might not otherwise know or have stayed in touch with.

As a result, I’ve decided to go with a good piece of advice from a fellow Papist on the Sunday question, which is to take a half an hour before going to Mass on Sundays during Lent to check in on Facebook.  Not to goof around, chat, or make new Bitstrips cartoons – more’s the pity – but to see whether anyone needs some help or encouragement.  The hard-core Catholics among my readers will no doubt think this is a sign of weakness on my part, while the more laid-back Catholics will think this is too formulaic.

Yet such attitudes prove the point as to why the bishops are careful when it comes to the ins and outs of proscribing how to make Lenten sacrifices.  We are each called to sacrifice in our own way, not to prove what a good Christian we are, but to try to be more like Christ.  After all, even in His pain and suffering on His way to Calvary, and while hanging on the Cross, Christ took the time to try to comfort and give support to other people, whether it was the women of Jerusalem, St. Dismas (the “Good Thief”), or His Mother and St. John.

Truthfully, I can’t come anywhere near that level of sacrifice or help to others. My “give-up” is absolutely nothing but an insignificant little drop of rain in the ocean.  Yet I do it because I love, and because I want to love better, as He did.  Hopefully, that will be the end result of this Lenten experience.