Friday, March 3, 2017

God doesn't accept bribes!
On Giving up for Lent

High Priest Offering Sacrifice of a Goat at the Temple
from Wikimedia Commons
For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
--Psalm 51 (KJV)

"Hear, O my people, and I will speak; O Israel, and I will testify against thee: I am God, even thy God.
I will not reprove thee for thy sacrifices or thy burnt offerings, to have been continually before me.
I will take no bullock out of thy house, nor he goats out of thy folds.
For every beast of the forest is mine, and the cattle upon a thousand hills.
I know all the fowls of the mountains: and the wild beasts of the field are mine.
If I were hungry, I would not tell thee: for the world is mine, and the fulness thereof.
Will I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?
Offer unto God thanksgiving; and pay thy vows unto the most High."  --
Psalm 50 (KJV)


Lent is upon us, and I thought it meet to write about my Lenten penance, and how my goals in this have changed since my conversion.    

Let me preface these remarks with an account of my bartering with God before my conversion, because this connects with the title.    At that time (and to a degree, after my conversion) I was a worrier--the future I foresaw was always gloomy, with the worst possible scenario coming to pass.  For example, if my wife (or wife and children) were off somewhere and past the expected time of return by a half-hour or more, I would envisage car wrecks, abductions, .... And so I would say to God, "Please let them come home OK, and I'll give up chocolate" (or stop biting my finger-nails, or _____ fill in the blanks.)   

Even though I was not altogether sure then that there was a God,  I usually made good on these bribes, at least for an extended period of time, or until the next occasion of potential disaster arose.   But it never occurred to me, as my wife pointed out later after my conversion, that this was a very pagan practice and totally against Catholic notions of what God demands of us.   And so to Lent.    


One of the things one is supposed to do at Lent is fast.   This was not a new thing for me.  As an ethnic (non-religious) Jew I would observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, by fasting (only water and coffee, a fast which at 87, I try to observe) and by reflecting on the past year and what I had done wrong.  You should note that the Catholic fasting regimen is more lenient than the Jewish.   Even by drinking coffee I was not holding strictly to a Jewish fasting regime.   More interesting are speculations as to why fasting arose with the Jews;  according to the Jewish Encyclopedia
"others, again (e.g., Smend), attribute the custom to a desire on the part of the worshipers to humble themselves before their God, so as to arouse His sympathy."
As the linked article notes, there were a host of holidays and occasions on which ancient Jews would fast, particularly if they sought mercy from the Lord:
"And Nathan departed unto his house. And the Lord struck the child that Uriah's wife bare unto David, and it was very sick. David therefore besought God for the child; and David fasted, and went in, and lay all night upon the earth.    And the elders of his house arose, and went to him, to raise him up from the earth: but he would not, neither did he eat bread with them."   --2 Samuel 12:15,16 (KJV)
So, again, bartering with God.


My first Lent after my conversion to the Church in 1995  pretty much followed my Jewish ideas.   I fasted in the Jewish mode on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and I gave up things and practices--candy, biting my fingernails, watching some favorite TV shows (Frasier, Seinfeld)--in other words sacrificing, not a goat but stuff I enjoyed,  hoping that this would please God.    There was no thought of doing that which would make me grow in faith.

As the years passed, and I listened to more homilies on Lent and I read more about the Church and Lent, it struck me that God didn't need this--He wasn't going to eat the candy or ice cream I gave up (His was the "Big Rock Candy Mountain").     What He wanted was that I grow closer to him,  that I share--in a very little way--the sufferings of Christ and thereby appreciate more fully what Christ had undergone and what He has gained for us.

So, what I did over the years was to modify my Lenten resolutions, year by year.

  • To cultivate the virtue of patience, I resolved not to pass cars going the posted speed limit (I learned to drive in Southern California, where the race is to the swift); this was the resolution broken most often, but these last few years I've learned to adhere to it (or maybe that's just the consequence of growing older).
  • To lessen my concern with things of this world, I resolved not to visit eBay or buy things online;
  • And again, to lessen my concern with the material world, I resolved to not watch those cooking show competitions to which I had become addicted;
  • I resolved not to eat between meals and eat only one helping of any food that I liked; this was also a difficult resolution to keep, and I've modified it. I don't want this to be a diet, but something to moderate concupiscence. There's a quote from St. Augustine that's pertinent:
"I struggle each day against concupiscence in eating and drinking.  It is not something that I can cut off once and for all and touch no more, as I would with concubinage.  The bridle put on the throat must be held with moderate looseness and moderate firmness.  Is there anyone, Lord, who is not carried a little beyond the limits of personal need?"--St. Augustine of Hippo, Confessions 10, 31
And on a positive note, I've resolved to attend Mass every day, to spend time with the Liturgy of the Hours, to do more volunteer work, and to be more liberal in alms giving.    And most important,  not to pray for things or actions, but rather to pray to accept the will of God, to put my trust in Him, and to know His love.   I still pray for healing for others and for the Holy Spirit to send grace to family and friends, but this is for others, not myself.

To some degree these resolutions have been carried through outside of Lent, particularly the positive ones.  I don't claim to live a perpetual Lent, but there have been changes effected by the forty days.    In the main, I try to remember that God cannot be bribed;  that Lent is not for Him, but for me.

Have a good, a fruitful and a holy Lent.

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