Lenten thoughts


The great advantage of Lent is that, faithfully observed, or rather, attempted, it makes havoc with all one's diurnal customs and habits.

This long season of fast and abstinence, into which what remains of western Christendom returned, on Ash Wednesday this last week – throws a spanner, purposefully, into our machine.

"Faithfully observed" is a broad concept, and while the church has traditionally provided strong suggestions on what we should give up, in the 40 days and nights, she has also accommodated personal circumstances. The old and the ill are not expected to fast, nor anyone to do anything that might endanger health. For this is not an athletic event, like running a marathon.

And, "the letter kills, but the spirit gives life." (2 Corinthians 3:6.) Or alternatively, so many other passages in Scripture, and in the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, tell us not to ignore the letter of the law. But they also speak of a Law much greater, beyond human language, spoken upon the breath of nature and into the conscience of mankind.

This is the Law of Love, according to the Christian teaching. The same St. Paul writes elsewhere to the Corinthians that, "if I distribute all my goods to feed the poor, and if I should deliver my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profits me nothing." Fast and abstinence cannot save you. Dieting cannot save you. Without love you are nothing.

Hence the part of the Lenten instructions that so many don't hear: the more important part. These are 40 days in which one's habitual selfishness is to be challenged, and one's attention turned outward to others' needs. Better than to skip dinner oneself, is to feed the hungry.

And in the broadest sense: for human beings are hungry in so many ways. In our country, even the humblest recipient of "public welfare" can find a meal somewhere. What he cannot find, and often does not expect, is to be loved by anyone.

To my mind – to my actual observation – the poorest people in the world do not live in Africa, or in remotest rural India, or in the slums of Third World cities. They live right here in North America, and in Europe, in the heart of a society that is apostate in the fullest spiritual sense. By the letter of the law, everyone who survives childbirth is "entitled" to basic food and clothing and shelter, in our "progressive" and "democratic" countries. Our charity is the letter of the law, only.

I have seen through my own eyes the most desperately "poor" people – by statistical, western standards – happy in themselves, happy in their families, and free of resentment at fate. I have seen mothers with ten times the children, and one-tenth the income, of their emancipated sisters in the West – yet with joy in their faces. And if you read what feminists will say in response to this, you may see more clearly just what I mean.

There are women, as men, who will not be loved, and cannot be reached by any kindness – in every country of the world. But for those of goodwill, love makes the difference. My point was that a woman bathed in the love of her own children becomes different in kind from a woman enjoying only the formal (and legislated) respect of her professional colleagues. Which is to say nothing at all, at least nothing directly, about "the role of women." I am drawing attention to a forgotten reality.

Frailty and dependency is what I'm selling here: the frail human love through which, by grace, we may begin to be "rolled," as Dante described it, "by the Love that moves the sun and the other stars."

Likewise with men. For while they have not the ability to bear children, nor quite the capacity for nurturing empathy that nature has supplied with that, a man struggling through the cold war of modern office life has only ego to sustain him, when he is unloved; when he has no others to live for.

"Rights language" is the opposite of love: leafing as it does through a catalogue of resentments, on the field of envy. The old may have the "right" to a cell in a nursing home, as the criminal has the right to a cell in a prison, with regular meals, and medical attention. They are allowed, at prescribed times, to walk in the yard, and catch a bit of sunshine. Staff may even be instructed to wheel them.

Go to either place and see the looks in the faces of those who are not visited, because not loved; and have come to the conclusion that they were never loved, by anyone.

Lent prescribes the reaching out to just such people; and in the reaching, a re-assessment of what is important in the reacher's own life.

Fasting and abstinence are not unimportant: for they create an occasion, undermining routine. Moreover, self-denial makes us conscious of our frailty, for we invariably fail.

Frailty and dependency is what I'm selling here: the frail human love through which, by grace, we may begin to be "rolled," as Dante described it, "by the Love that moves the sun and the other stars."




David Warren. "Lenten thoughts." Ottawa Citizen (March 13, 2011).

This article reprinted with permission from David Warren.


David Warren, once editor of the Idler Magazine, is widely travelled – especially in the Middle and Far East. He has been writing for the Ottawa Citizen since 1996. His commentaries on international affairs appear Wednesdays & Saturdays; on Sundays he writes a general essay on the editorial page. Read more from David Warren at David Warren Online.

Copyright © 2011 Ottawa Citizen

Subscribe to CERC's Weekly E-Letter



Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.