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Let them have Lent

Can we stop playing Who’s the Real Catholic? Can that be the Lenten discipline for those of our friends who are so anxious to lecture?

(Image: CNS photo/Carlo Allegri, Reuters)

The title — “Don’t use Lent to try to impress God” — headlined the newsletter from a good Catholic site. The article was as dispiritingly earnest as you’d guess, and a bit passive-aggressive too. Like so many of its companions in the genre, the article rolled out the clichés as if they were revelations. You can’t impress God, can’t bribe him, can’t make him like you by working harder, can’t earn grace, he wants your heart, he wants your love more than he wants your sacrifices, it’s not about giving things up but taking things on, and don’t think you’re a better Catholic for doing it.

These articles appear every year before Lent. Still, undaunted, as also happens every year, people will share what they’re giving up. They’re serious, but many are also playful. They enjoy the discipline as a game, played against themselves for the prize of knowing God a little better. Then, as happens every year, Catholics — with a strong Puritanical streak that manifests variously — will chime in.

The self-promoting variety will tell them — no, will “share” — how much more they (the self-promoters) are giving up. The aggressive variety will tell the sharers they should keep their penances to themselves.

The aggressive and censorious variety will tell almost anyone they see sharing their Lenten disciplines that they should keep it to themselves because they’re just showing off and performing for the world’s approval, and Jesus doesn’t like that.

Those of the aggressive-and-censorious-but-knowing-how-they-sound variety will inform their interlocutors that they should keep their disciplines buttoned up because otherwise the sharers risk showing off and performing for the world’s approval — and that could make the saints and angels very sad.

The pretentious variety will say to them as share their intention to practice certain disciplines, that such disciplines are a late development, no part of the Church’s original idea of Lent, etc.

The Modernist variety will tell anyone in earshot much the same, and also insist we know better now.

The Trad variety will insist their interlocutors are only doing Novus Ordo fasting.

The passive-aggressive variety will say that Lent isn’t about denial but is really about giving and openness and letting go and being vulnerable and doing more and whatever other cliché they like.

In advance of Lent, let me say to all our friends inclined thus to remonstrate with their fellows in religion: Just shut up.

Let people enjoy Lent as a game and let them enjoy playing the game with their friends. Assume they’re as wise and as serious as you and know what you’re telling them, to the extent that what you’re telling them is actually true. You’re not helping them encounter God: you’re trying to shut a door that can lead them to know themselves and Him better.

Can we let one Lent go by without hauling out that old canard about people trying to bribe God by working at being good? Just one? Can we just let people give up their coffee or ice cream or hamburgers without the googoo Catholics saying — oh, so sweetly — that they should be doing something, not giving up something? And without the Catholic Puritans intoning lectures on What Lent Is All About?

Can we stop playing Who’s the Real Catholic? Can that be the Lenten discipline for those of our friends who are so anxious to lecture?

Let people enjoy the old disciplines. Stop trying to go deeper or behind things that work perfectly well and make people holier (or, God forbid, happy).

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About David Mills 3 Articles
David Mills, former executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream, editorial director for Ethika Politika, and columnist for several Catholic publications. His latest book is Discovering Mary. Follow him @DavidMillsWrtng.


  1. God was impressed when people of Nineveh fasted for 40 days. Isaiah warned Hezekiah he will die. When Hezekiah was seriously ill he reminded God of his obedience and wept bitterly. God healed him and added 15 years to his life. Jesus said “When you fast…..” Didache mentions fasts on Wednesdays and Fridays. There is no need to hide fast and abstinence. You can impress God. Those who deny that contradict Bible.

  2. Amen! The thing is, we can play games with God all we want, but God sees through them, and sometimes uses our own trying to use Him, to break into our lives more radicially. It’s always a possibility, because God is much more interested in our growing in love, than we are, and like a good parent, sometimes lets us think we won.

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