Lent and Guilt
Guilt is the recognition that we have responsibilities and that other people matter
I have a confession to make. For me and for many feeble Catholics like myself Lent nowadays is marked by little more than a cardboard money box on the kitchen windowsill and perhaps an intention to drink a little less wine and give up something nice like chocolate for six weeks. For many more, in this age of waning faith, giving up going to Church altogether is an easier sacrifice to make — and not just for Lent either! That’s a tired old joke you often hear and usually smile at, yet its undercurrent runs deep and strong: it means that so many of our friends have utterly lost their contact with the Faith and their belief in the value of self-control and training in spiritual matters.
By contrast our Muslim brothers and sisters commonly undertake tough and disciplined self-denial during the month of Ramadan. I find that kind of dedication deeply moving: eating and drinking nothing throughout the daylight hours, for weeks on end, is a hard sacrifice to make, probably even more so in the long summer days of the Southern Hemisphere. Frankly, many Muslims — and many Eastern Christians, particularly if they come from countries where there is active persecution of religion — put us to shame. Their loyalty to their belief is costly to maintain, and occasionally risky as well. They are brave and they live like champions.
So of course do a lot of Western Christians. My own practice might be lukewarm and half-hearted, but I have many good friends who are spiritual athletes. Like almost everyone else, they understand (at least in theory) the value of physical and mental exercises: they know you must train hard to play sport well, and study hard to excel in your exams. But they also know that the spirit, too, needs to be trained and strengthened in order to achieve real growth.
It’s a funny world. A lot of secular people do actually believe in the value of some kind of spiritual training. It’s not hard to find practitioners of Yogic or Buddhist meditation. Transcendental Meditation once popularized by The Beatles still has its adherents, and there are all sorts of other forms of controlled contemplation in quite common use. They have wide appeal among non-religious people for one important reason: notions of sin, guilt or judgement are conspicuously missing.
But these things amount to the touchstone of Christianity. I recall the Reverend John Smith (d. 2019), the so-called “Bikie Pastor” and founder of the God Squad, defining guilt as “the nerve endings of the soul.” To him feeling guilt was not the weakness of Christianity but its strength. Guilt is the recognition that we have responsibilities, that other people matter, that we can always do more.
Lent sharply focuses on guilt. To live a good Lent is a fine and noble aspiration. It won’t make us play better tennis or earn a distinction in our exams, but it could make us better people in the way that ultimately counts for most.
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