In the past, I have explored various Lenten themes. Two years ago (my heyday for blogging), I explored doubt and lament and injustice. And that is all good. This year for Lent, however, I would like to explore its traditional penitential aspect further. Repentance is something I have long struggled with because it reminds me of a corrupt fundamentalist theology that centers on the wrath of God. But, I think, repentance can be rehabilitated. This is what I wrote two years ago:
But in Lent we repent of our sins. That word cannot be avoided. At the Ash Wednesday service I went to at Highland, the worship minister lead us in a series of confessions taken from the Book of Common Prayer. The repentance was from sin, but sin was not a legal infraction meriting eternal Hell as I had grown up understanding it:
Sin was intemperance. Or negligence.
Sin was folly and sin was failure.
Sin was mean spirited and malicious.
Sin was uncharitable and hypocritical.
Sin was a disruption of the web of relationships. It was the breaking of shalom.
The confession that sticks most in my mind is this one:
For all false judgments, for uncharitable thoughts toward our
neighbors, and for our prejudice and contempt toward those
who differ from us,
Accept our repentance, Lord.
And repentance is a plea to God for restoration. A request for him to heal the rip.
Repentance is trusting that the darkness, negligence, ignorance, folly, failure, intemperance, malice, judgement, and hypocrisy will be overwhelmed by love.
The opposite of sin is not obedience to commands. The opposite of sin is love.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Cor. 13:4-7)
And it is willingly participating in that process of restoration.
As part of this embrace of the penitential, I plan to take time out of every day to examine in what ways I have opted for vice over virture; I plan to examine my life for excess and waste and negligence and ignorance and to repent, to work toward restoration and virtue.
One thing Lent asks people to do is to give up something important, and perhaps excessive, to embrace ascetic discipline just a little bit. This self-denial drives people toward self-reflection and self-criticism; it’s supposed to move people closer to love of God and love of neighbor. The things that people give up for Lent are generally not intrinsically bad (food, sugar, caffeine, TV), but they can come to wield a disproportiante influence over our lives. Something I have long believed is that love displaces sin; virtue displaces vice. The solution is rarely, if ever, quit doing something bad without simultaneously replacing it with something good. Rather, I have found that the purpose of giving something up is to restore balance, to locate the excessive habit in its proper location amid various other activities.
I, of course, have lots of vices, lots of sites of excess. I eat too much. I sit on my butt too much. My carbon footprint is too big. I’m wasteful with food and with plastic and with water. I proably watch too much TV (mediated by Netflix and Amanzon Instant Video). And, in some ways, even being daily aware of one site of excess lends consciousness to the other site. So, for Lent, the main thing I am doing is I am giving up reading in-depth news (New York Times, The Atlantic) and blogs.
I read close to forty blogs regularly. Every single one of them is excellent. They are well-written, deeply informed, and make me think. I read across the religious and political spectrum (for example, I read both Jacobin and The American Conservative). And I think, in a lot of ways, all of this reading has made me smarter, a better person, and more open to different ideas. Plus it has kept me informed about the larger world. But I also spend close to three hours a day reading them (more time than I spend reading for my graduate seminars combined). And as well-thought out as they are, they almost always concern themselves with the current.
As far as replacement goes, I want to take the same amount of time I have spent reading good journalism and good blogs and instead read books. Something I have slowly started to embrace over the course of the last couple of years is the idea of tradition. I have discussed the religious implications of this elsewhere (mainly as concerns by embrace of broadly orthodox theology (as formulated by the creeds and the first seven eccumenical councils) and of traditional Christian practices), but this is becoming important for my intellectual life as well. I live in the West. I am studying Rhetoric and (reluctantly) Literature, subjects that fit within the traditional liberal arts. And yet I have never read most of the works that have shaped western thought. I find “great books” curricula appealing (though I have concerns as well related to the exclusion of marginalized voices, perspectives, and works) because it identifies a distinct tradition at the heart of the liberal western tradition since at least the Renaissance. Plus, I am becoming professionally interested in classical and renaissance ideas about rhetoric and education. Finally, I think being well-read is a virtue in itself; and it seems like I should begin at the beginning.
To this end, I am going to begin reading through Mortimer Adler‘s Great Books List. It begins with Homer, the ancient Greek playwrights, the ancient Greek historians, and andcient Greek philosophers. I plan to add more theology to the list. My brother (in seminary to be a Catholic priest; majored in history and philosophy in college with a classics minor; reads Latin, Greek, and Hebrew) suggested adding Church Fathers and Doctors, which is probably what I will do.
In addition to giving up the news and blogs and reading books instead, Amanda and I will be re-committing to simplicity (in ways yet to be defined). My intention is to use Lent as a way to begin reclaiming what I know is best for me (eating well, exercising, working with my hands, reading deep works, writing, praying) and to walk away from some of the harms created by excess.
O God, you delight not in pomp and show,
but in a humble and contrite heart.
Overturn our love of worldly possessions
and fix our hearts more firmly on you,
that, having nothing,
we may yet possess everything,
a treasure stored up for us in heaven. Amen. (found here)