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Last Word - March 2011

Self-Denial Denied

Several months ago, when the National Football League postponed a game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Minnesota Vikings because of a snowstorm that Sunday in Philly, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell complained, “We’ve become a nation of wusses.” Two years ago, John Strausbaugh wrote a book he entitled, Sissy Nation, in which he argued, as I understand it, that we have become a coddled, indulgent people unable to make sacrifices, even those we know need to be made.

In the political world, we all know that we have been living beyond our means. As the national debt piles up, everyone knows that federal and state budgets need to be cut. But, when asked about specific cuts, the public is opposed to almost all of them and certainly any that would impact them personally. As a result, many have questioned whether our political leaders have the courage to take on the excesses and make the hard decisions that are needed to reshape our national addiction to so-called “entitlements,” for fear of voter wrath. In our personal lives, we have often had the same problem, whether it is the apparent obesity crisis in America, or credit card debt, or a variety of addictions. Self-restraint is hard and, as a result, it is scarce.

How can we relearn the discipline needed both in our personal and public lives? I would like to think it could come from a renewal of the most traditional, time-tested and powerful solution to this self-control deficit, namely, from religion.

Lent has traditionally been a time for self-denial, marked especially by fast and abstinence. When the grey hairs among us were growing up, there were lots of days of fast, partial fast (remember the half fish on the Catholic calendar in your kitchen?), and days of abstinence. But over the last generation, these have sometimes waned as the emphasis in preaching and practice often shifted from giving things up to doing something positive for Lent: for example, taking part in faith-enrichment programs, doing charitable works, praying more. And these have certainly been good things. But, perhaps, the time has come to go back to giving something up. Maybe giving something up for Lent is exactly what is needed in a self-indulgent culture. We do seem to need the practice. We have gotten bad at giving up.

Certainly those traditional Lenten practices, referred to above, fast and abstinence, come to mind first. Church law requires two days of fasting: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and encourages a third, the “paschal fast” of Holy Saturday. And then there is Friday abstinence from meat. Other forms of more personal, voluntary giving up are also certainly available.

Many years ago, when I was a young priest, I learned somewhere (I forget where) a little Lenten limerick.

There once was a hippo named Lent
Who grew to be big as a tent.
But when ashes were given
And sinners were shriven
Repent on that Lent made no dent.

I know it is silly. But Lent could be the way to make a dent in our national and personal lack of self-restraint.

Rev. Msgr. Michael J. Henchal