Lent started yesterday with Ash Wednesday – famously described on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update as “the day Catholics freak out their co-workers.” The topic at many a cafeteria table, CCD class, or living room was “what are you giving up for Lent?” Or, in more Jesuitically-influenced circles (sorry, guys!), “what will you be adding to your life for Lent?” The practice of fasting in various ways – fasting from food, abstaining from the pleasures small and large that can numb us to our spiritual health or lack thereof, solidarity with the poor through sharing in their unchosen inconveniences – is an ancient tradition of the church with even deeper Jewish roots.
But one difficulty I have with some Lenten practices – my own, particularly – is the way in which they can easily turn into a liturgical version of New Year’s resolutions. Whether fasting from food, or desserts, or television, or, in my case this year, Facebook, Lenten discipline can easily slide from an act of devotion to an act of self-development – 7 habits of highly effective repentant people. And, if by giving up desserts we’re better prepared for swimsuit season, well, that’s just a bonus. I’m not saying this (hopefully) as a cranky old man complaining about how lax our Lenten practices have gotten. Rather, I’m saying it as someone deeply aware at how easily even my best efforts to prepare for the celebration of the paschal mystery can verge on self-deception, self-promotion, and self-centeredness. After all, particularly in my North American culture, I want even my acts of self-denial to “do something” – to do something for others, to improve my spiritual life, to give me more time to pray. But if fasting in its various forms isn’t about giving up bad habits, but about refraining from morally neutral enjoyments for no good reason other than becoming aware of their influence upon our lives, then exploring why I’m choosing a particular practice for Lent is essential to prevent it from turning into another semi-Pelagian grasp for self-justification at best, or a superficial act of self-advancement at worst.
I’m giving up Facebook for Lent this year. Which is ironic, given that if you’re reading this post, you may have gotten here by way of Facebook. And I imagine that Facebook might be pretty popular (again) this Lent, but for some of the same reasons that I just expressed concern about – “I spend too much time on Facebook” – “I waste too much time on Facebook” – things I say, and hear, regularly. So how can fasting from Facebook for Lent be not simply another method of self-improvement, but an actual spiritual practice? What hardened habits of heart might it be uprooting?
For the record, I don’t think that Facebook is a bad thing – if it were, it wouldn’t be worth giving up. In many ways it can be, and in my life has been, a very useful tool for living out love and communion with others, unrestricted by the distances of time and space. And in ways that I still find fascinating, it is one of the few places in my compartmentalized world where my friends, especially my fellow Christians, of widely, wildly divergent sensibilities and positions encounter each other’s authentic, deeply held positions – sometimes even charitably…
But for me, my Facebook habits are a habit of the old vice we used to call “pride” in the Christian tradition. Thomas Aquinas relates a definition of pride (superbia) as “inordinate desire to excel” independently from God (ST IaII.84.2) in the Summa Theologiae, as well as the Book of Sirach’s judgment of pride as “the beginning of all sin.” (Sirach 10:15). But how could simply logging on to Facebook, liking a few posts, and making a few snarky comments involve a sin of pride? Lack of charity – often. Sloth – usually. But pride?
I spend too much time on Facebook not simply out of laziness, but because of the twin combination of wanting to know things first, and wanting to be seen to know things first. Whether it’s a new video of “Stuff Beekeepers Say,” a news report about the latest candidate gaff, a report on something quirky or interesting happening, say, in three of my favorite categories – knitting, alcohol production, Vatican politics – I not only have the desire to know all of the details, I also have the desire to know them first, and to be the one to share them first. “Via Brian Flanagan” – there are few words so good at suggesting to me that I’ve found or said something witty, profound, intelligent, and from there it’s a short step to seeing myself as witty, profound, and intelligent. It’s a great way of shoring up my always fragile ego, the false self who’s more in touch, more connected, more witty, more ironic than others around me. And all of the traditions of our church suggest that the jerry-rigged, fragile construction of opinions, preferences, and self-regard that we create for ourselves is often precisely that which prevents us from receiving the true self that our God wants to give us. It’s why we started yesterday with ashes on our foreheads – a sacramental sign of how all of the things we think make us important – our intelligence, our attractiveness, our physical health, our cleverness – are less important than we tend to think that they are.
That’s my Lenten practice for this year – trying to receive the gift of a real self from God by refraining from one of the multitude of ways I block that gift through my own self-promotion and self-aggrandizement. A practice I’m arguably undermining by putting all of this up in a blog post.
So to begin moving the focus from myself to God and to my neighbors, what are you doing for Lent this year?