A priest I know was telling me about the dangers of “perpetual penances.” That is, giving up something for a short time (like giving up sweets for Lent, or giving up meat on Fridays) is a true sacrifice, and works internally the way that a fast is supposed to. But a perpetual penance, like giving up sweets or meat completely, risks ceasing to be either a fast or a form of penance, and instead becomes a source of spiritual pride. Back in the seventeenth century, the Archbishop of Paris described a group of Jansenist nuns in Port Royal, France as “pure as angels, but proud as devils.” Obviously, the humble man with an unfortunate sweet tooth is more pleasing in the eyes of God.than the proud man who controls his diet fastidiously.
This same priest told me a story of his own struggles with this during his seminary days. He’s got a very real interest in the Desert Fathers, monks who often had really radical penances (living on next to no food). It was Lent, and the priest (then seminarian) decided he was going to give up sweets. He talked to his spiritual director about this, who said something to the effect of, “You’re trying too hard to achieve perfection on your own. As your spiritual director, I forbid you to give up sweets for Lent. Your penance will be not giving up sweets.” After this, Father said, he felt a twinge of something like embarrassment when he’d be eating dessert, and another seminarian would comment on it — “I thought you were giving up sweets?” or words to that effect.
I love Lent, and the idea of detaching ourselves from the worldly pleasures which distract us from God is solidly Gospel. But there are times when we need to detach ourselves from something even worse than worldly pleasures, like spiritual pride. As Christ said, “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” (Mt. 15:11). He explained the meaning of this saying (Mt. 15:17-20):
“Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.”
As we start to close out the season of Lent, this has been a helpful reminder to make sure that my priorities are right – that I’m giving things up for the right reasons, and not letting these tiny penances give me a big head. Father’s spiritual director had it right. The point of Lent isn’t to make sure we eat healthier, or watch less TV, or exercise more. It’s about improving our spiritual discipline, and removing those things which might serve as a roadblock in our relationships with Jesus Christ. Sometimes that’s something as simple as an overindulgence for sweets. Other times, it’s those things which are so much harder to uproot, like our pride.