Friday, March 16, 2012

Is Lent Morbid?

There is an excellent article in this week’s Irish Catholic, in which Father Ron Rolheiser laments that the modern world has forgotten the essential link between fast and feast; that we celebrate without purifying ourselves beforehand, without entering into a suitably solemn frame of mind, even without appropriate anticipation. We simply rush onto the fun, and the fun inevitably seems anti-climactic.

“In a word”, he says, “Christmas is no longer special because we’ve celebrated it during Advent, weddings are no longer special because we’ve already slept with the bride, and experiences of all kind are often flat and unable to excite because we’ve had them prematurely.”

I have been thinking a lot about this during Lent. Lent is a time of self-denial and penance. Isn’t that a bit morbid? A bit masochistic? Isn’t it confirmation that Christians are essentially killjoys who view happiness and pleasure as rather suspect?

I don’t think so. And one proof that there is nothing essentially Christian about renunciation is that virtually all philosophies of life involve some element of renunciation, or the struggle against temptation.

Rationalists congratulate themselves upon shunning wishful thinking and supersition, or the belief that there is anything special about humankind. For the rationalist, the spirit of rational thought strives against the flesh of intuition and bias.

Environmentalists, of course, have made renunciation pretty much the central theme of their philosophy—they strive to live in harmony with nature and to mortify the urge to exploit it.

Aesthetes, drop-outs, slackers and bohemians resist society’s expectations to hold down a regular job, obey social conventions, or produce edifying art with a moral message.

Libertarians resist the temptation to judge other peoples’ ways of life.

Even supporters of Ayn Rand, of the anti-altruistic philosophy of Objectivism, have their own temptation to resist—society’s guilt-tripping attempts to make them their brothers’ keepers.

And, of course, proponents of “liberation” such as feminists or gay rights activists seem to be a thousand times more puritanical and repressive than the mainstream they decry—they pounce upon turns of phrase or daily habits that seem perfectly innocent, and hold them up as evidence of ingrained bigotry. Read a page of a feminist or “queer” philosopher and you will soon end up feeling you are supposed to second-guess everything you say and do-- and usually not say or do it at all.

Every philosophy of life involves renunciation and sacrifice and restraint—and who could live without a philosophy of life? To make the attempt would itself be a heroic renunciation.

So there is nothing inhuman or joyless or life-hating about Lent, or about the Christian requirement for purification and mortification. Human nature cries out for a fast as much as it does for a feast, for penance as much as celebration. When we have the one without the other, there is a nagging—perhaps even a subconscious—feeling of incompleteness, of banality.

In this as in all things, Christianity’s aim is that we shall have life, and have it to the full.


  1. I couldn't agree more. I was just thinking about this the other day. Here in Michigan we've had a laughably mild winter. Now spring is coming but I don't feel the same joy as I usually do at the first signs of spring. It's like we need the harsh winter to fully appreciate the springtime. :)

  2. Well, I prefer the winter anyway! My favourite movie of all time is Groundhog Day. If I had to choose a day to relive over and over, it would be a snowy day in a small town. And my favourite quotation of the movie:

    "When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life. But standing here among the people of Punxsutawney and basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts, I couldn't imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter."

    Makes me want to watch it right now...but I've given up movies for Lent!!

    Oh, and Hello Michigan!!