Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Vocabulary of Virtue

Our diocesan newspaper, The Catholic Spirit, recently ran an article purporting to give a new perspective on Lent. To guide Catholics out of the stultifying routine of giving up candy or desserts (the whipping boys of the piece) for Lent, we are offered the following suggestions:
  • "Let's give up looking for a pat on the back. This Lent, let's do at least one thing each day for someone who will never be able to repay us. When we get good at that, we can try doing something each day for someone who will never be able to thank us."
  • "Let's give up trying to be comfortable all the time. Instead of seeking comfort, let's find something to be enthusiastic about and put God's gifts -- our brains, our talents, our resources -- to work on behalf of that activity, organization, or program."
Someone should tell all the energetic young interns around the country that they don't need to worry about giving up anything for Lent because they're already enthusiastically putting their talents to work for a cause or activity or organization.
  • "Let's give up trying to one-up others. There's a Hindu proverb that goes like this: 'There is nothing noble in being superior to others. True nobility comes from being superior to your previous self.' Let's find something we can improve about us."
It would be edifying to hear that proverb explicated in light of the Hindu caste system.

A few more examples:
  • "Let's give up taking care of No. 1. Instead of thinking about how everything and anything impacts us, let's worry first about how others are going to be affected -- by proposed new laws, by policies, by trends, by economic shifts -- by our own actions and behaviors."
  • "Let's give up being practical... Let's give up being in a hurry... Let's not argue over small things... Let's not be crabby..."
There is nothing wrong with any of these offerings, as far as they go. They just don't go very far. Each of them try desperately to be relevant to the modern Catholic and as a result they smack of self-improvement pap. The thing is, Catholics already have a vocabulary of virtue. I suppose there's nothing wrong with "Lenten Lite" ideas, but I very much doubt that very much spiritual benefit can be derived from "Let's give up looking for a pat on the back" without tying that effort into the theological virtue of charity.

In the same vein, "giving up trying to be comfortable" is merely a simplistic gloss on what we Catholics term "mortification of the flesh". (That's why we give up stupid things like candy and dessert during Lent -- not because they're bad in and of themselves, but because we set aside one good for the sake of attaining the Good.) Patience and humility require a more radical realignment of our lives toward the divine than "Let's not be crabby" or "Let's give up taking care of No. 1".

Want to make Lent seem irrelevant and meaningless? Unmoor the idea of Lenten sacrifice from the rich vocabulary of virtue. That's the way to make Lent seem onerous and antiquated to any "modern Catholic".

3 comments:

Literacy-chic said...

* "Let's give up trying to one-up others. There's a Hindu proverb that goes like this: 'There is nothing noble in being superior to others. True nobility comes from being superior to your previous self.' Let's find something we can improve about us."

It would be edifying to hear that proverb explicated in light of the Hindu caste system.


Perhaps since you're already by nature superior to someone (except if you're Untouchable), and since there is no upward mobility in the caste system, the best you can hope to achieve is being better than your former self? Unless you consider that since you have been reincarnated into (hopefully) a better state than that of your previous life, you are already better than your previous self? ;)

rose said...

I think the other problem with this sort of spiritual advice is that it's so vague as to be useless. They might as well just say, "Be good, and don't."

CMinor said...

It does smack a bit of "Dumbing Doctrine Down," doesn't it? I wonder to what extent it's concession to the general lack of interest in self-sacrifice.