Everyone wants to be happy, but few are truly happy. Let’s look at how our attitude about Lent reveals our level of happiness in 3 ways:
In Christianity there is a subtle difference between internal and exterior happiness. Internal happiness is usually identified with “joy” (laetitia in Latin). External happiness depends on happenstance. In the case of “external happiness,” the happiness depends on “what happens” with our money, sex life, health, relationships, politics, etc.
The Christian has learned from Christ that internal happiness (joy) is the secret to life. And the annual Christian practice of Lent is a training camp for internal happiness.
We refocus the lens of our soul on internal joy but restricting the sources of external happiness. The Roman Stoic (not Christian) Seneca followed natural law and came up with his own personal Lenten season:
Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?”
So he would drink water and plain meals and wear cheap clothes just to prove to himself that it didn’t deeply diminish his happiness. And so much more for the Christian who has Christ within the soul!
There are three reasons why Lent reveals your level of human happiness:
1. If Lent robs you, it reveals the extent to which you are focused on “external happiness.” This sets you up for misery in the future. Because the externals can be ripped away by bankruptcy and disease. Saint Paul wrote:
Not that I complain of want; for I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me. (Phil 4:11-13)
Christ is at the center of Paul’s internal joy.
2. Lack in external happiness requires either despair or a turn to Christ within. When we cannot take comfort in alcohol, food, sex, Facebook, TV, etc. we must either lack all happiness OR take a turn into the core of our heart and search for Jesus to give us joy.
Lent turns into a discovery expedition. Is Christ still hidden deep in your heart? Can you see Him? Can you hear Him? If not, then despair is all that’s left.
3. Lent as Desert vs. Dessert. Catholicism has a perennial respect for the Desert Fathers and Mothers who lived in the Egyptian desert to deny themselves of the pleasures of the world. Lent allows you to become a hidden Desert Father or Mother. The daily denial. The embrace of the wilderness.
Compare the desert monks and to those we see on Food Network undergoing great stress and competition while they attempt to create the most tasty cupcake. I like cupcakes just like everyone else. There’s nothing evil about cupcakes. But do we try half as hard as the contestants on Cupcake Wars to keep a good Lent?
Living a life of little is living a life of great interior joy. As Saint Francis de Sales taught, we should be like the pharmacist in the pharmacy. The pharmacist is surrounded by powerful drugs that can either heal or hurt those that receive them. The pharmacist has a duty to avoid poisoning himself with the substances he handles.
Lent reminds us that we can live in a prosperous world, and yet not inwardly digest the wealth that surrounds us.
The pharmacist finds joy, not in secretly giving himself oxycontin from beneath the counter, but by his interior knowledge of how to heal the sick.
TV, Facebook, cupcakes, and wine are not evil per se. Not drugs in and of themselves. But our attachment to them can be toxic. If we have become addicted to the exterior drugs that surround us, Lent marks a season of rehab.
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