For Your Penance

With Lent approaching, it is time to think again about how to answer the annual question, “So, what are you giving up for Lent?”  Or, its variation, “What are you doing for Lent?”  Often, the emphasis is on you; the person asking the question is poised to use your answer as a springboard for talking about what the questioner is giving up or doing.

Of course, Lent is not a roaring beast we need to placate by human sacrifice.  Lent was made for us; we were not made for Lent.  Although one use of Lent can be as a kind of pause button between the self-indulgence of Mardi Gras and its resumption forty days later, a more spiritually edifying use of Lent is for beginning a new chapter in one’s life.

Here, let me propose a most challenging form of asceticism, a daring, even daunting, kind of self-discipline to begin in Lent before trying it out year-round.  Think of it as learning a new language; Lent will be the immersion period, lessons where it is all right to make mistakes but start over.  After forty days, some fluency should emerge.

This Lenten penance is simple, but far from easy:  Avoid beginning sentences with the first person.  To put it another way, train the mind to rethink speech patterns so that the subject of each sentence is not oneself.

For example:  “I like that lamp.”  Well, really, who cares?  As if my liking that lamp confers some special honor upon it.  All the same, “I like that lamp” means that the rest of the conversation centers around me and what I like about lamps.  Even if the catalyst were something other than lamps, the conversation soon becomes boring, none of us being all that fascinating.

Instead, try:  “That’s a good lamp.”  The focus then turns from me to that lamp.  It’s a much more interesting statement, subject to discussion, since it begs the question, “What makes a lamp good?”  Then we can consider what others, maybe Aristotle or Augustine, Russell Kirk or Roger Scruton, used to say about things and about being good.

This challenge of verbal fasting from oneself goes double for the clergy, since to whom more has been given, more is expected.  As one’s Lenten homilies are leading the faithful closer to God, try not to lose one’s flock by shepherding them through a forest of personal pronouns.  After all, especially during Lent, someone must decrease and Someone else must increase.

Daniel J. Heisey
Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno. He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.

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  1. I like this post! (oops.)