I forgot Ash Wednesday.
No big surprise; I forgot last year too. I probably could have swung into the church I only haphazardly attend. I dropped my daughter off at school for 7 am so I could have stopped in… but I didn’t.
So begins a stretch of 40 days and nights where my family will likely adopt the minimalist approach towards devotion: meatless Fridays, maybe Palm Sunday and Easter Mass. Situational Catholics. On one level, I’m certainly a bad Catholic. But as a friendly priest has reminded me now and again — we all are.
Lent is a sacrificial season, reflection and preparation for renewal. On the whole, our culture rarely makes use of sacrifice as a means to honor ourselves or others. Our material reality seems to preclude it; for the most part we only give lip service to “giving things up”. During lent many choose to give something up. We call this a sacrifice, but is forgoing chocolate or dessert for just over a month really a sacrifice?
Listen, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that there aren’t people out there who do give of themselves with energy of a social activist hopped up on Red Bull. In my opinion they are the exception rather than the rule.
What is sacrifice: egoism or altruism?
One of my classes is reading Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”. Conrad wrote a letter to a friend while writing the story and expressed that man is nothing more than a criminal, all society is organized criminality and that darkness pervades all we touch.
He also adds that a tension exists between egoism and altruism. Egoism dominates our relationships and drives us to conquer and build. Whereas altruism the limited expression of our goodness, exists in short supply. In Conrad’s eyes darkness, not light, lay in our very hearts.
He has a point. We rarely blink an eye at atrocities committed both great and small, yet when someone does a good deed it goes viral. Some even argue that most sacrifice seems built for show, that it fills some need to be noticed for the things we’re giving up.
If Conrad is right, and we are built mostly out of dark, then I suppose this is what seasonal sacrifice offers — an opportunity to give up darkness and its appetites rather than give in to them. A chance for altruism to be the norm; a chance to practice something different.
So, I decided yesterday, no matter how bad a Catholic I might be, I’m still going to sacrifice something other than chocolate or meat during lent. I’m going to attempt sacrificing egoism. Maybe being a little less self-centered is what I can bring to the world and my small corner of it. Unfortunately, I don’t think this will be easy. The ego fights hard to exert itself, especially when it feels threatened.
One way to accomplish this, I think, is to attempt more altruism. What shape that will take I can’t really say. I’ve pretty much decided to spend the next 40 days listening to the world and letting that altruism take its own form. Depak Chopra believes the universe tells us what it needs from us on a daily basis, we simply need to train ourselves to hear the request and then have the courage to fulfill it.
In this way grace reveals itself in its myriad forms. In this way sacrifice makes us whole restoring our mortal integrity. That is until we screw up, shattering integrity and the process begins anew.
So, that’s the plan…
We’ll see how it goes. I have a terrible time with consistency. Maybe I’ll learn something if I can see this thing through. But, just in case, maybe I’ll give up chocolate to be on the safe side.