By Sr. Laura Coughlin
When it comes to the Lenten practice of “giving something up”, I’ve been rather slack in the past. It seems to me that if there is something I need to give up, I should do it right now. But then, of course – who does that?
Saints do. And this is a goad to my conscience.
How useful is it really to give up things like beer and candy in a difficult season when a return to these goods is fully anticipated at Lent’s conclusion? If the purpose is conversion, and you have a problem with beer, shouldn’t you be giving up beer for good?
The saints would say AMEN to that.
We misunderstand saints when we treat them as going too far in fasting and other penances. The holy ones know the wide gap between God and humankind because they have been gifted with vision. They know that sacrifices which seem outsized to the rest of us are only baby steps in the eyes of God. And they set the example that wholehearted baby steps are irresistible to an indulgent parent. Isn’t this why the Father runs toward his beloved young man while still “a long way off”? (Lk 15:20).
But the prodigal son wasn’t a saint, so perhaps the parable doesn’t work for the story I’m telling. Then again, the holy ones consistently demonstrate a pattern of thought from which they describe themselves as the most debased of all. A saint’s “who am I to judge?” comes not from presumption that sin is not sin, but from the examined knowledge of concupiscence, of one’s own inclinations to evil. Out of this knowledge, they understand the need for mercy.
When I began this post, I intended to write about how Lenten sacrifices better enable us to look at God directly. Beer and candy and television and Downton Abbey (NO, BRITISH ANGLICANS ARE MUCH TOO ENTERTAINING TO BE FASTED FROM!) and Facebook and Donald Trump and checking email every two minutes and and Youtube videos and the ubiquitous cache of itunes on the ubiquitous iPhone entertainment system can be distractions that deprive believers of the one who offered himself as the humble, but glorious, mediation of divine mercy.
So….I gave up useless internet surfing.
A small thing? Nay, a deficient and persistent habit of the mind that translates curiosity into what T.S. Eliot described as “knowledge of motion but not of stillness.”
What do I mean more precisely? How much energy is expended researching the ideal pew for people with back pain, or trying to find out whether standing over sitting offers significant weight loss benefits, or watching YouTube videos of Rebekah, “Coonrippy” Brown’s seized pet raccoon, or being pulled off track by every tiny idol of “long skirt” because I googled one back in November?
So straighten up you backslider! Purify your heart, ye double minded! It would seem that to be a fisher of persons I must remove the slack in my fishing line.
Imagine the young man dragging himself home toward his father. He’s sweating, he stinks, he’s badly sunburnt, and his shoes – if he has any – are full of holes. He cannot stride quickly with such contemptible footwear and so much hunger, but he has only one goal on his mind, and this he pairs with a formidable determination. He will not stop until he gains the security of living again in the Father’s household. To be in that household is to enjoy warmth, encouragement, companionship, nourishment, rest, work, a sense of purpose, and the certainty that comes with belonging. So secure was that home that the weary son imagines slavery there to be better than “freedom” elsewhere. Driven by necessity more than by the type of freedom we often imagine as an ideal condition, he decides that what he has is enough – it is, finally, enough to simply return to the household where he was always loved without condition.