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What to give up for Lent: Some (possibly novel) ideas

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I propose some possibly unordinary ideas of mortifications for Lent, of the sort that may not have occurred to you, but which are likely more difficult, and cut closer to places where you need spiritual improvement, than some other alternatives.

Free time. I put this alternative first, because it reveals the error in what people sometimes say, that one can look to do "positive" works of service rather than merely "negative" works of giving something up. Actually, no: we can do nothing positive which is new, unless we are prepared to give up something less valuable which we are attached to and hold. For example, to go to Mass each day during Lent, if you haven't already been doing so, will require that you give up free time during lunch, or before or after work. Again, by all means, plan to spend lots of time before the Blessed Sacrament during Lent. Indeed, make that sort of prayer your focus. But at the same time be honest and realize that this will require giving up time that you usually keep "for yourself." We most fundamentally recognize God's sovereignty over our lives by acknowledging that our time is not our own but His.

Eating too much. As the astonishing rates of obesity in the United States show, the main error that people make in eating is not indulging in what they like, but rather simply eating too much. The pagan Aristotle regarded over-eating as particularly base. It was something contrary to nature, he thought, to stuff one's belly past the point of filling, even to the point of being distended and feeling uncomfortable. But we almost always simply eat too much at a meal, and we hardly ever eat even a smidgeon too little. So try this: figure out your daily calorie requirement (basal metabolism + activities); carefully count the calories which you consume at each meal; and make it your goal, merely, not to each beyond that quantifiable limit. Be conservative, too, and err on the safe side rather than cutting yourself slack. I say that you should adopt this plan not as a regimen for dieting but rather as a path of humility and self-knowledge. Thus, as with any spiritual discipline, it will be necessary that you not merely count calories but also pray; ask for graces; and seek the grace specifically of the sacrament of confession. (Yes, it is a sin against the virtue of moderation to overeat.) Again, the goal is not to attain self-mastery but to show love. You will finish Lent with lots more humility if not anything else.

Noise. Turn off the gadgets. Peel yourself away from the distractions. Stow away your earbuds for the next six weeks. Develop a new habit of keeping your phone in your pocket, or, better, on a desk or shelf. When in the car, do not turn on the radio. Do not surf the internet: at all, period. Do not watch television. Beyond what is necessary for work or for essential communication, do not look at a glowing electronic screen. Live as people did in the 19th century. Do not allow your senses to be affected by anything except sounds of nature, the human voice, and occasional but unavoidable mechanical sounds. But why? First, because it is good for the spirit to deny the senses what they crave. (I am guessing that even to read about depriving onself in these ways causes you an actual, bodily discomfort -- a sign that you lack interior freedom.) Second, because these electronic distractions crowd out interior life. It is not easy to live in the presence of God when one is living in the presence of Facebook or email. Spare moments which could be an occasion to say an "Ave" or "Memorare" for a sick relative, or a friend facing a wrecked marriage, instead get snatched away by trivialities such as the most superficial tweet or another look at Drudge. Third, because we need silence to become the contemplative souls that we are meant to be. Fourth, because paradoxically if we do not cultivate silence, then, when we do speak, we fail genuinely to communicate, as Pope Benedict pointed out: "Silence is an integral element of communication; in its absence, words rich in content cannot exist. In silence, we are better able to listen to and understand ourselves; ideas come to birth and acquire depth; we understand with greater clarity what it is we want to say and what we expect from others; and we choose how to express ourselves."

Talking about others. I might have said "gossip," but gossiping is a sin, and sin should be given up anyway. What I mean are those grey areas that are close to gossip and lead us to gossip. So I use the vague category, "talking about others." Actually, there are few occasions when we should talk about others. When we share news that is meant to be shared. When we discuss performance or behavior with others who have a supervisory role. When in a strategic or competitive situation we consult about how our actions need to anticipate or respond to what someone else does. But what we might try to avoid are: comparisons of excellence or failure; saying what pleases or displeases us; damning by faint praise; noticing faults for no purpose. That sort of thing. Convert the talk, then, into prayer.

Michael Pakaluk is Professor and Chairman of Philosophy at Ave Maria University.

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