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First Tuesday of Lent: Abstinence

Tuesday, March 11, 2014
What is the purpose of abstaining from certain pleasures during Lent? Along with prayer and almsgiving, we abstain during Lent ultimately in order to repent of our sins, be transformed, and turn back to God - i.e. to bring about metanoia.

How is it that self-denial brings about such an outcome? Well, self-denial doesn’t per se bring much about since it is really God who brings about metanoia; it is He who calls us back to Himself [cf 2 Cor. 5:18].  But, principally, self-denial makes us more attentive to hearing his voice, to seeing Him in all His glory, and encountering Him more deeply.

This notion was captured wonderfully by the Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, in his poem, “The Habit of Perfection”. He describes how the denial of each of the senses leads us to the Divine: if we make space for God, He will us more abundantly than the pleasures of this world. Take, taste, for example:

“Palate, the hutch of tasty lust,
Desire not to be rinsed with wine:
The can must be so sweet, the crust
So fresh that come in fasts divine!” [13-16]

Being abstemious in matters of food and drink, as Hopkins recommends to himself, is an obvious example of self-denial. There are many other examples, of course. For instance: refraining from idle chatter, or choosing to sit in a less comfortable chair. Self-denial can take modern forms, too, such as reducing/excluding time spent on the internet, reducing/excluding time spent watching television, or not going to the cinema.

There are at least two further aspects we might consider.

First, according to St. Thomas, self-denial also helps us to acquire self-discipline, which in turn helps us to lead a more virtuous life in other areas: “The body is chastised by means of abstinence, not only against the allurements of lust, but also against those of gluttony: since by abstaining a man gains strength for overcoming the onslaughts of gluttony, which increase in force the more he yields to them. Yet abstinence is not prevented from being a special virtue through being a help to chastity, since one virtue helps another.” [ST II-II, Q 146, A 2, ad 2]

A malnourished child in South Sudan,
a country which remains in
de facto civil war
Secondly, our act of self-denial can be a gesture of solidarity with the poor - whatever form that poverty might take: hunger; homelessness; loneliness; oppression. Our choosing to go without reminds us of life without such pleasures, and turns our attention and our prayers to those who have no such choice. This is particularly striking on Ash Wednesday and Fridays in Lent when, on the verge of self-pity, one recalls that one in eight people around the world are chronically undernourished, and in developing countries, one in three children suffer from malnutrition. Any saving made from abstaining can, of course, be given to those in need, in addition to almsgiving.

However, whilst there is much to be gained from abstinence, there are some pitfalls to be avoided. It’s best to take advice from a trusted friend or a Spiritual Director.  For example, whilst recognising the virtue of abstinence, one need not necessarily go to Manichaeist extremes and reject meat and wine altogether.  As St. Cyril says, “When you abstain from these things, do not then, abstain from them as if they were abominable, else you receive no reward. Rather, while recognising that they are good, yet prefer the better, spiritual things set before you...  But do you, the servant of Christ, see to it that when you eat you eat with reverence. But of meats enough.”

A similar temptation is to judge those who for whatever reason do not abstain. C. S. Lewis observes, “One of the marks of a certain type of bad man is that he cannot give up a thing himself without wanting everyone else to give it up. That is not the Christian way.”
C. S. Lewis
‘The Christian way’, to coin Lewis’s turn of phrase, is to practice abstinence not as an end in itself - the result of which is pride and priggishness - but rather to practice abstinence according to “right reason” [ST II-II, Q 146, A 1, ad 3] as a means to come closer to God. Let us take the opportunity before us this Lent.

Collect from today’s Mass
“Look upon your family, Lord
that, through the chastening effects of bodily discipline,
our minds may be radiant in your presence
with the strength of our yearning for you.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.”

Samuel Burke OP


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