Giving Up For Lent
What are you giving up for Lent? This is a question people often ask.
I used to say that if you give up something for Lent, you should give it up for life. I mean, why put yourself through the agony of going without cigarettes or coffee for forty days only to resume your addiction when Lent is over? Presumably, you are giving up something you want to be rid of, something that is bad for your health or that is slowly killing you.
Having managed to survive forty days without your substance of choice—having proven to yourself that you have what it takes to forego caffeine or nicotine—you are on the road to freedom, at least in this matter. Why would you want to put yourself through this same agony again later, in season or out of season, when you admit to yourself once again that you really need to give this stuff up? But maybe it’s not so agonizing after all to give up tobacco. As Mark Twain once remarked, “Giving up smoking is easy. I’ve done it a thousand times.”
Sometimes we give up something in order to distract ourselves from the one thing necessary that we really should give up. No long ago, in preaching at a Mass for grade 10 kids, I said, “What’s the point of giving up candy for Lent when you’re hooked on internet porn?” Only one kid smiled. Some addictions, like internet pornography, are really deadly, not only to ourselves but also to others. And yet it’s easy to kid ourselves into thinking that we can eventually give up whatever it is by giving up something else instead.
Some things are not really harmful, but we can waste a lot of precious time on them. I’ve given up television: that was easy (though I’ll probably watch the Super Bowl). What I’m really addicted to is the newspaper. I did give up The Globe and Mail only to take up The Toronto Star. As someone says in one of Woody Allen’s films, “I used to be a heroin addict, now I’m a methadone addict.” I gave up the Star too, but not on Sundays (that’s allowed, isn’t it?). Sunday is the day when the Star arrives with the International Edition of the New York Times and the Times Book Review. There is more interesting stuff in those than in a whole week of the Star. But I’m back to reading the Star on weekdays now as well.
Like so many things in Catholic practice, we fasted because we were told we had to or else. Nowadays hardly anyone fasts. I mentioned this recently to a young woman on retreat at Loyola House in Guelph. She was part of a non-denominational church, and she responded that fasting was actually a common practice in her faith community.
Fasting is still taken seriously in the Byzantine churches (for instance, the Ukrainian Catholic Church), where people go the whole of Lent without butter and eggs and meat. We still have a vestige of this on Shrove Tuesday, also known as Pancake Tuesday, because all the butter and eggs had to be used up before Lent began. In Italian, it was called Carnevale, a farewell to meat at the start of Lent, though in New Orleans it has turned into a riotous and carnal celebration of another sort.
We are fortunate in having a Code of Canon Law which spells out (in Canon 1252) exactly when Catholics have to begin fasting (“those who have attained their majority”, i.e., usually either 18 or 21)) and when we can desist (“the beginning of their sixtieth year”, i.e., on turning 59). It’s part of Catholic culture that we not do any pious act unless obliged to by law. Anyone who has already turned 59 should therefore stop fasting immediately! So I’m giving up for Lent.