“I don’t know about all of you, but I’m already sick and tired of Lent.”
– Dr. Regis Martin, 8AM Theology Class, Every Ash Wednesday
So even though I don’t write about it often these days, long-time readers will know that I’m Catholic. Lent has always been just about my least favorite time of the liturgical year. Not because enduring Lent in the modern-day Church is particularly difficult – read about the old school Roman Catholic or the current Orthodox Lenten fasting rules, and you realize you’re getting off easy with the current rules on fast and abstinence. Even so, I’ve never been a fan of any kind of voluntary suffering. I’ve always felt like life deals quite enough punishment to most of us without our needing to take on more pain for the fun of it.
This Lent is interesting to me for several reasons. I’ve talked about it ad nauseam, but because my family has gone primal, everything we eat is different than it used to be. Lots of people give up their favorite gustatory delights as a penitential privation for Lent. But we’ve already given up all bread, pasta, desserts, pastries, cereals, candy, juices, and most alcohol. I’ve had priests recommend small sacrifices like not putting sugar in my coffee. Already doing that now. And I gave up caffeine entirely about three months ago, so that’s not an addiction I need to quit. There just isn’t much food left to give up, so that’s off the table, no pun intended.
Perhaps coincidentally, I find it interesting that one of the recommendations of the Primal Blueprint is Intermittent Fasting – which has health benefits that go beyond simply losing weight. Fasting isn’t just a spiritual practice, it would seem, it’s a physical one too. It’s good for us to fast now and then in ways we probably never knew. And since human beings exist as both physical and spiritual creatures, I can’t help but think that this recommendation from our Creator takes both of these aspects into account.
I’m not entirely certain what practices or penances I’ll engage in for Lent this year. I’m fairly certain I’m going to abstain from Facebook during Lent, primarily because I find that it’s a big time waster and my time would be better spent writing here, or working on other projects. I have more ideas than I ever give myself time to execute on, so the fewer excuses for not getting to them, the better. With that in mind, I’m probably also going to scale way back on TV. I don’t watch an inordinate amount, but after reading and writing all day at work, it’s hard to come home and want to sit down with a book. I’m far more inclined to watch a show, or a movie, once I finally have the kids in bed. If I do make myself read books though, I might even force some spiritual reading into my intellectual diet, which I’m sure would be good for me.
Which brings me to what may really make this Lent pivotal for me: the fact that I actually care that it’s Lent at all. The past couple of years of my life have been filled with both hardships and blessings, and often enough, they’re one and the same thing. I’ve done a lot of soul searching during that time, and I’ve come up against some real internal struggles with my faith and the things I have not only long believed, but written about and even taught for many years. Some time ago, I arrived at the conclusion that my Catholic faith, though it has so long formed the deepest part of my personal identity, was not something I was entirely comfortable with or ever freely chose. When one grows up Catholic, it’s all but impossible to escape the notion that separating yourself from the Church – even for the purpose of attaining sufficient distance to achieve clarity of thought – is not an option. I can’t “take a break” from Catholicism without committing serious sin. I don’t get to go on a guilt-free 6 month moratorium from Mass, or from moral precepts, while I decide whether or not the Catholic Church presents me with the most compelling case that it, and no other alternative, is the absolute truth.
Put another way, the notion of Hell as a consequence of choosing things other than those prescribed by God (or more specifically, His Church) is, in effect, a psychological gun to the head. There is no escape from the mentality that you must keep doing the very things you are struggling with believing or face the consequences. And any relationship that is so compulsory feels, to me at least, an unlikely place to encounter the love that is supposed to be the hallmark of man’s relationship with Christ.
I have tested the limits of what distance my Catholic guilt will allow me in the last few years. I can’t say it’s a very long leash. I have discovered, despite some serious temptations to atheism, that I do not like the man I would become if there were nothing to believe in. Personally, I find Dostoyevsky’s apocryphal maxim to be true: “If God is not, then everything is permissible.” There is no sounding the depths of human selfishness if there is no reason not to explore them.
The fact remains that I prefer to believe, and I still suspect that God and His Church are where I will find the truth, even though I continue to struggle. I do not have, as my Protestant friends would say, “A personal relationship with Jesus.” I find God to be the most impersonal of all persons, the most intangible of all realities, the most inscrutable and unknowable of all truths. Love is, as I’m sure Aquinas argued somewhere along the way, based upon knowledge. And yet what I actually know about God, in any rational, understandable way, is very little, despite 20 years of near-constant study. I certainly do not know enough to love Him in a way that compels me to willingly embrace the radical virtue and sacrifice that true Christianity demands. So there is nothing left to it but to unwillingly embrace these things, I suppose.
Some would argue that the alternative is worse, but I’ve seen a great deal of happiness in the lives of many atheistic hedonists, and I have known no few devout and faithful people who live lives without joy. I have experienced this contrast in my own life. The notion that sin doesn’t make people happy is, I think, a convenient lie. I have known too many jolly sinners. That said, happiness in this life is not salvation, and as Blaise Pascal pointed out to skeptics like me, that is quite a trade-off. There is a reason why Augustine plead with God, “Give me chastity, but just not yet!” It wasn’t because he was bored with his sinfulness. The pleasures of this world may never fill the God-shaped hole, but for many who pursue them, they do a fantastic job of making them forget that the God-shaped hole needs to be filled.
I don’t want to fill that void with anything else anymore, but I’m still a little punchy. I’m not sure what the catalyst was for this little sojourn into darkness, but it’s going to take time for me to open up again. So I take baby steps. There have been many events in my life that the faithful man would see as miracles, and the cynic would see as happy coincidences. Either way, I feel gratitude for them, so I make it a habit of thanking God every day, even on the days when I’m not sure that makes sense. Gratitude is a key to happiness, and may in fact be a key to faithfulness. It’s hard to be bitter when you’re feeling thankful. And I’d rather thank God than fate.
I’ve also learned a solid-gold lesson during this time. I’ve learned that if I want to have a happy, successful life, I have to count on myself, on my family, on my friends, and not on miracles and providence. It doesn’t mean I don’t pray for things. I just don’t count on those prayers moving the mountains I need to move anymore. For a guy like me, there has always been a temptation to a sort of providential laziness, a God-tempting fatalism that takes the pressure off of me and puts it on the Big Guy. “Seek ye first the kingdom and righteousness”, and all of that. And in that mindset, when prayers don’t get answered/life doesn’t go your way, you can blame Him. I did a lot of blaming for a while. Then I put my big boy pants on and decided that nobody was responsible for my happiness but me. Maybe that, more than anything else, was why I had to go through this. I had to stop depending on God for everything long enough that I could learn to depend on myself too. Who knows?
To be honest, I didn’t sit down to write a post about all of this. For obvious reasons, I have been reticent about sharing these personal struggles. I certainly have no desire to lead others astray through my own doubt and confusion. But perhaps because I have been through the darkest, lowest places already, I sense that there is hope, which I will likely only find with the help of others.
So if you would be so kind, would you pray for me this Lent? Would you pray that my Faith, if I ever really had such a thing, will be restored? That I will come to truly know Him? That I can learn to love God, and not just to fear Him?
Thank you. And know that when I do pray, I will pray for you.
Steve Skojec is a storyteller, writer, blogger, photographer, designer, and sci-fi fan. He is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. He lives in Arizona with his wife Jamie and six of their seven children.