Our eldest, then about two years old, one day announced “I want . . .” but did not finish the sentence. My wife and I waited for her to tell us what she wanted to be picked up and rocked? a cup of milk? her stuffed bear? but again she said only “I want” and let her voice trail off. She said it a third time, still sounding equally unsure about what she wanted. And then, with a look of enlightenment on her face, said in a loud, firm voice, “I want!”
There, I thought, was the fallen human condition expressed. We are creatures of ravenous, indiscriminate desire. We want this and we want that, but most of all, We Want.
Hence the value of Lent, which begins today, and of an old discipline that seems, even among Catholics, to be now somewhat neglected: the traditional discipline of giving things up for Lent. Bookish people being as fallen as anyone else, we might take a brief break from the pressing issues and interesting intellectual questions to reflect on the value of this discipline. Giving things up for Lent has, in my experience, two obvious benefits.
The first is that you very quickly find out how much a hold the world has on you. This is a lesson to which the Christian will give intellectual assent, but few of us really see what it means. We like to think of ourselves being happy to give up anything for the Lord just like that, with a snap of our fingers, even our lives, but most of us find it hard to give up something that really doesn’t matter. You dream of standing up to the lions in the coliseum, and find yourself snapping at the waitress because the restaurant is out of your favorite dessert.
We are not in shape, and we are also delusional. Spiritually, we’re like the pot-bellied middle-aged guy in the speedo swimsuit at the beach, who is just shocked that the twenty-year-old girls in bikinis are not hanging all over him and cooing. He would have a better idea why were he to hit the gym.
I gave up coffee one Lent. I thought I could handle it. I wanted to feel the pinch, but I didn’t expect (or want) to feel walloped with a bat instead. I gave it up, and I found that I really missed it.
For one thing, I soon realized that I didn’t like coffee only for the taste, or for the caffeine, but for the rituals, of getting up from my desk and wandering to the faculty lounge to get another cup, of chatting with the colleagues on the way, of wandering back to my office to settle in again after a pleasant break. It just didn’t feel right, not getting up for coffee.
And there was the caffeine, or the sudden lack of it. For maybe three weeks I found myself with a sudden craving for Classic Coke, something I rarely drink, and getting up from my desk to walk across the seminary quad to the soda machine in another building, even when it was pouring rain, and I did so without the slightest idea why. Then I realized I’d only found, through some subconscious sense, a substitute source of an addictive drug and was happy to risk illness to get it.
The second benefit of giving things up for Lent is that you also find, at the end of Lent, how good are the things God has given you. The things you’ve given up come to you afresh, almost as if you’d never enjoyed them before. When you can have them any time you want, and do have them any time you want, you don’t enjoy them as God meant them to be enjoyed. At least I don’t.
I sat down at breakfast on Easter morningwe’d gone to the Vigil the night before, so that I really was breaking my fast at breakfast and drank a big cup of very strong coffee. And it was really, really, really good. I haven’t enjoyed coffee that much for years, decades even. I suddenly had some idea how heroin addicts feel.
Now, after that Lent, I drink much more tea than coffee, but every coffee I have is a treat. It’s a far greater pleasure now, coffee is, than it was when I knocked the stuff down all day.
That’s one of my experiences with the discipline of giving things up for Lent. I learned something about myself, and not just how much a hold the world had on me but my subconscious ability to satisfy my worldly cravings even when I didn’t realize I was doing so. And I learned something also about the pleasures God has given us, which really are great pleasures, until we take them for granted because we have so much of them.
Even bookish types are addicted to the world’s pleasures, and perhaps more deeply so because we believe our tastes intellectual and refined. So just give up something. Almost anything will do, because once you give it up, you’ll want it. Start small, but start.
David Mills’ latest book Discovering Mary: Questions and Answers About the Mother of God will be published this summer.