Lent and Love

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What is the point of the Lenten sacrifices [1]? Why do we fast on some days, abstain from meat on others, and then also give up something which we enjoy for forty days? These are surely questions which are asked by everyone who has struggled to keep their Lenten fasts, whether they ended up succeeding or succumbing to these struggles.

Chesterton-Christian-Ideal1In his book What’s Wrong with the World, GK. Chesterton tells us that, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” What he meant here is that most things actually worth doing require some effort, and some level of skill or know-how which must be acquired through practice, and indeed through failure. The expert concert pianist has misplayed more notes than I have, because he has spent far more time playing the piano than I ever will. In the process of becoming an expert pianist who is able to play well, he was first a novice pianist who played but poorly. Becoming an expert pianist has been his life’s work to that point—and of course, he must continue to work at it if he is to remain an excellent pianist.

Each of us has some unique vocation in life: but what we all have in common here is the calling to pursue holiness, to be virtuous. Above all, we are all called to love. Indeed, we will find that it is easier to love if we are virtuous, and easier to be virtuous if we are pursuing holiness, and easier to pursue holiness if we do it for the sake of being more loving.

freedom-william-wallaceThere is a sort of prerequisite condition to becoming more virtuous, loving, or even holy: that is that we must be free. By this, I mean not that we must have political freedom—which is a good thing in general, but which does not guarantee that we can or cannot love, of be virtuous, or holy. Nor am I referring to freedom of the will as distinct from determinism, for this we are given as our birthright, though freedom of the will is necessary for love [2], or to choose virtue (or anything else for that matter). Rather, being free here means that we are not slaves of our passions or our appetites and other immediate desires, that we are able to resist temptation to sin or even mere distractions.

There is a sense in which the most important virtue is the lowest, that is, temperance. All of the other virtues (save perhaps prudence) require some amount of sacrifice on our part: and indeed, there is a sense in which the greatest of all virtues, love, especially requires sacrifice. Concerning this, we are told that “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Sacrifice is the greatest of all acts of love, and while this particular form of sacrifice hinges on the virtue of fortitude, it is the practice of smaller sacrifices through temperance that lead us to more easily make the big sacrifices which need fortitude [3].

It’s the little things in life… Image source.

While opportunities for these small sacrifices resent themselves to us in everyday life, we would not likely seek them out on our own. I may give up beer or sweets or fatty meats for a time for the sake of losing weight; or I may turn down the extra helping for the sake of allowing someone else at the table the chance to get their fill. But never would I likely have picked an innocuous minor good to give up for a time for the simple sake of making a sacrifice.

This is where the genius of the Church comes into play [4], with her custom of observing Lent by making a variety of small if at times difficult sacrifices. These small sacrifices do make it easier, in time, to make bigger sacrifices, and by developing first the virtue of temperance, we can next develop the other virtues. By saying “no” to some of our minor appetites and temptations, we get better at saying “no” to the bigger temptations, and perhaps even to our passions. This leaves us all the freer to say “yes” to the virtues, to God’s call to holiness. Indeed, by learning to sacrifice, we learn next how to love. Lent thus is an unsought aide to living the truly good life. It is worth saying again that if life is worth doing well, then Lent is worth doing badly.

[1] Recently there have been a couple of other good columns on this topic elsewhere on Ignitum Today. Neither was actually the inspiration for this particular post. I think I should credit both Schall on Chesterton and the study I’ve been doing of Love and Responsibility and Edward Sri’s practical commentary on the same for that. However, both Mr. Ryan Kraeger and Miss Liesl B. make many similar points in their columns to what I am saying here.

[2] Love is among other things an act of the will.

First Comes Love Scott Hahn[3] In his book First Comes Love, Dr. Scott Hahn notes that there is more to the story of the Fall than what we can get from reading the translation in English. The “subtle serpent was more akin to a terrifying dragon, yet there is still some small subtlety in the text: when he tells Eve (and Adam, who was likely nearby) that she (and hence he) would not die if he ate of the fruit of knowledge, the unspoken implication was that the serpent would see to it that they would die if they refused. The first act of disobedience thus came from a failure of fortitude on the parts of Adam and Eve. I would speculate here that there is more to it that this—since he was gifted with temperance and thus did not need to earn it first through trial and sacrifice, it is possible that Adam did not build up to fortitude through the smaller sacrifices of temperance.

[4] Another place where the genius f the Church comes into play is in the moderation of the sacrifices we undergo. We fast, but don’t starve ourselves. We give up goo things, but not necessary things. We discipline ourselves rather than punishing, torturing, or otherwise arming ourselves. That is, however, for another day.

Nicene Guy

Nicene Guy

JC is a cradle Catholic, and somewhat of a traditionalist conservative. He earned his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Texas at Austin in the summer of 2014. He is currently a tenure-track assistant professor of physics at a university in the deep south. He is a lay member of the Order of Preachers. JC has been happily married since June of 2010. He and his lovely wife have had two children born into their family, one daughter and one son; they hope to have a few more. He has at times questioned – and more often still been questioned about – his Faith, but he has never wandered far from the Church, nor from our Lord. “To whom else would I go?”

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