Don’t “do” Lent

“I don’t want to do Lent this year.”

This was the title of an honest and insightful blog post by my friend and colleague, The Rev’d Michael Marsh. (click here to read it in full)

Fr. Mike goes on to explain: “…now maybe that’s something a priest isn’t supposed to say but I did and I mean what I said. I don’t want to do Lent this year. I don’t want to just get through Lent. I want Lent to get through to me. I want Lent to do me.”

'The hair shirt is sufficient. You don't have to shave with a hedgehog.'
‘The hair shirt is sufficient. You don’t have to shave with a hedgehog.’

Having grown up and come of age in the Roman Catholic tradition, I sometimes hear people joke about a good dose of lingering “catholic guilt.” And then, of course, there’s the cringe-worthy joke that the Episcopal Church is “Catholic Lite: same religion, half the guilt.” I hate that joke. Though I can laugh at the sentiment, I somehow doubt Roman Catholics have a monopoly on guilt. I’d bet guilt sells quite well in any system that appeals to fear (political, ecclesial, corporate, or otherwise).

But the days of guilting people into faith, shaming them for not thinking or doing the right things is long gone. It doesn’t work anymore, if ever it did. Guilt, in the long run, does more harm than good.

As Jesus once said to his disciples, “The thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy. But I have come that you might have life, and have it abundantly.”

This is not to say there is not a place for a healthy sense of remorse or regret. Sorrow, after all, is a mark of having a heart. Guilt, in that sense, can sometimes lead us to wiser decisions, more life-affirming choices. The liturgical season of Lent, however, is not about wandering around feeling vaguely guilty for something we might or might not have done. Vague guilt rarely leads to true repentance.

Ash Wednesday, The Great Litany, the penitential character of Lent all call us to genuine repentance and conversion of life. True conversion does not glaze over sin, does not downplay the real hurts caused by our selfishness. True repentance leads to real life. A deeper sense of gratefulness and peace is the fruit of knowing oneself to be loved and forgiven.

I ran across a story recently that captures this sense of grace and conversion better than any theological commentary, and I’d like to share it with you. It comes from the Jesuit priest, Fr. Anthony DeMello in his book of short stories, The Song of the Bird. 

My Friend:

Malik, son of Dinar, was much upset about the profligate behavior of a youth who lived next door to him. For a long time he took no action, hoping that someone else would intervene. But when the youth’s behavior became intolerable Malik went to him and insisted that he change his ways.

The youth calmly replied that he was a protege of the sultan and so nobody could prevent him from living the way he wanted.

Said Malik, “I shall personally complain to the sultan.” Said the youth, “That will be quite useless, because the sultan will never change his mind about me.” 

“I shall then denounce you to Allah,” said Malik. “Allah,” said the youth, “is far too forgiving to condemn me.” 

Malik went away defeated. But after a while the youth’s reputation became so bad that there was a public outcry about it. Malik decided it was his duty to attempt to reprimand him. As he was walking to the youth’s house, however, he heard a voice say to him, “Do not touch my friend. He is under my protection.” Malik was thrown into confusion by this and, when he was in the presence of the youth, did not know what to say.

Said the young man, “What have you come for now?” Said Malik, “I came to reprimand you. But on my way here a voice told me not to touch you, for you are under his protection.” 

The profligate seemed stunned. “Did he call me his friend?” he asked. But by then Malik had already left his house. Years later Malik met this man in Mecca. He had been so touched by the words of the voice that he had given up his possessions and become a wandering beggar. “I have come here in search of my Friend,” he said to Malik, and died.

So maybe we don’t need to “do” Lent this year at all. Maybe we can come “in search of my Friend.” That voice, that search, that changes everything.

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