"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Loving Lent: two stories

During the homily at Ash Wednesday Mass, I began thinking about why I love Lent and how I would explain that. I prayed that I might be given some light to cast for others that somebody somewhere hadn't already cast better. Of course I saw at once the silliness of such a prayer. Or so I thought. I was wrong again.

When I got home, I stumbled on a post from recent convert Jennifer F. of Et Tu? entitled "Why I Love Lent." I hadn't been looking for anything like that and can't remember how I came upon it. Of course it casts light. But it has also enabled me to cast still more by contrast, by chiaroscuro if you will. So first I shall present the second half of Jennifer's explanation, urge you to read the whole thing, and contrast it with my own.

She writes:

Christians used to ask in wonder about my life as an atheist, "Don't you feel like there's something missing?" To which I would respond by rolling my eyes. In my worldview, the only things humans could possibly need or want were the goals that our species had evolved to need and want, and as long as I had those things or felt certain that I could attain them (which I did), nothing could be missing from my life. I continued to pursue happiness from the possibilities given to me by the material world alone. At some point I came to the realization that the best the world has to offer was probably never going to be good enough; that achieving my wildest dreams , even my own personal version of a Super Bowl win, would make me happy to a certain extent...but not fully. It was a bitter realization.

This is why I love Lent.

For me, Lent is a reminder that what I once thought was the worst news in the world -- that there is nothing in the material universe that was going to bring me the deep happiness I craved -- is actually the best news in the world. To give up worldly pleasures during Lent, things that I once built my life around pursuing, is to put them in their proper place; to disentangle my hopes and dreams from things and fleeting accomplishments; to set my sights much higher.

Lent reminds me to have a healthy amount of awe for one of the greatest mysteries ever seen: that the human animal, who should know of nothing other than the material world at hand, has from the beginning held on to this perplexing notion that what he needs and wants cannot be found in the only world he's ever seen. Almost every culture throughout history, separated by time and space, has come up with this idea. I always wrote that off when I was an atheist, assuming that people just needed stories about fantasy worlds to make themselves feel better. But now that I have discovered God's existence, I get it. This idea won't die because the thirst we feel deep in our souls is real, and the material world offers us only saltwater to quench it. Looking outside the material world, finding God, is to finally find the pure water that fully satisfies the aching thirst.

Lent reminds me not that all the status and comforts and possessions I've pursued are necessarily bad, but that there is Something infinitely better. To quote C.S. Lewis: "All that we call human history -- money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery -- [is] the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy."

Jennifer's commenters were duly impressed, as am I. Would that more people came at things as she does. But I am also struck by the contrast of her perspective with my own. I think it might help some readers to explain that.

I have never been an atheist. There was a time in my adolescence, when I had been sexually abused and was living alone, when I was tempted to be an atheist. But I never supposed that I could find fulfillment or joy without God. For me, the temptation to atheism was of a piece with being depressed, and hence with the temptation to despair and suicide. I concluded that if there were no God, there would be no reason for me to persevere with life; it just didn't seem worth the trouble aplenty. But I did not succumb to that temptation because, on reflection, it made no sense to me. The world seemed too complex, too fraught with beauty as well as tragedy, be just brute fact with no meaning beyond itself. Reading Lewis, Tolkien, and the like began to stimulate my imagination about the real meaning even as religion classes had not. The rest is a history I've briefly recounted in my post Why I'm a Natural Theologian.

Being a natural theologian became for me the intellectual expression of a broader personal tendency. Ever since I confronted and got past my adolescent crisis of meaning, I've always wanted to spend my time on people, places, and activities that are explicit foci of spiritual meaning: the more explicit, the better. I go for the heavy stuff, even when it's served up in jest or by people who aren't good advertisements for it. I find the lightness of secular being unbearable. And so I've never been interested in any secular career. Even if I could feign interest convincingly enough to launch such a career, I wouldn't be able to do so long enough to succeed at one. That's meant, among other things, that I'm usually broke. And that in turn has been a great disappointment to some important people in my life, who believe that a real man is supposed to bring home as much bacon as he can, regardless of how he feels about the means by which he does so. Admittedly, some men are (or seem) able to do that. Some of them do it with a bit too much booze, of course; but nobody much cares unless the anodynes start cutting into the bottom line. Yet I can't be such a man—even though my life might have been a lot easier if I could, as my father and my more successful friends have not hesitated to inform me. Given as much, I've never suffered the temptation, faced by many believers as well as atheists, to find fulfillment in the material world. Of course I enjoy money, sex, and other temporal pleasures—but not so much that I want to immerse myself in other temporal pursuits so as to acquire a lot of them. You can't be tempted to do something that you know would bore you almost literally to death.

But I'm not suited for the priesthood or religious life either. Decades ago, when I was free to explore such things, my own and others' sexuality made the exploration rather hypocritical. Now that my own and others' sexuality present no such obstacle, the obligations I've incurred by my youthful choices make the exploration impossible.

So here's the deal: I'm a problem that I can't quite solve. I am unsuited for success in either a secular or a religious profession; but neither is there is any excuse for a man of my gifts to give up and rot away in the sort of dead-end job I have now. That's why I do not give up on the goal of returning to Catholic academia someday. But that's also why I love Lent as much as Jennifer does.

For me, Lent is an opportunity to deny that intractable, problematic self of mine which gets so tiresome. Or, to put it more precisely, Lent calls for me to empty myself so as to make room for God. Of course I cannot erase who and what I am. But I can let go of it to a degree and turn it over to Christ: by the prayer of listening and of praise, by fasting sometimes from small pleasures and vices, by giving more of myself to obligations and people that I find as tiresome as I sometimes find myself. The more I let go of and get out of myself, the more room God has to work. More than doing the work of God—which is not always what it seems—I can allow myself the inestimable luxury of being the work of God. I love Lent because its requirements won't let me forget that.

Thank you, Holy Spirit, for sending me Jennifer's post to help me explain on my own account what she so well explained on hers.
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