When I was growing up in Pittsburgh, I was the only one of my friends on my street who wasn’t Catholic.
As my friends had tales of CCD, first communion, etc., I sat silent. I felt like I was missing out. My friends did a good job playing Tom Sawyer as they painted the fence, pretending that they were having fun and I wasn’t.
In high school I had a vibrant encounter with Jesus that changed my life. Christ was no longer the namesake of a religion. He was a personal God who I had a relationship with. I felt like the first guy with an iPhone while others had a flip phone. I wanted everyone to experience the Jesus I was experiencing. I was a rabid evangelist and my rabies were not appreciated by others. My Catholic teammates on my football team were especially repelled by my zeal.
As a result of my Catholic friends not appreciating the expression of my new found faith, I became a judgmental Protestant. The fires of indignation toward Catholics became a bonfire during seminary, where my classmates and professors were still fighting the Protestant Reformation of the middle ages, as if the popes were still executing Protestants for “sola fide” which was the Protestant cry of “only by faith” is one saved.
During this period I was adamantly suspect of all Catholics and all Catholic practices. As an immature seminary student who was ignorantly high on himself, I once argued that Mother Teresa wasn’t going to heaven. I’m ashamed of those words and of my attitude. I’m ashamed of how I shunned anything Catholic.
When my Catholic friends would give things up for Lent I would smugly respond, “Don’t give it up for Lent. Give it up for Jesus!” I was an ass. To all Catholics who were recipients of my smug judgmental attitude I say, “I’m sorry. I was wrong.”
All of this is background to how I accidentally practiced a Catholic observance this last week.
Giving up something during Lent. Jesus was tempted for 40 days by the evil one in the desert. This period of doing without strengthened His dependence on his Heavenly Father. It set Him up for the power in his ministry which would culminate in his death and resurrection. Catholics and many other Christians have followed the practice of giving something up for the 40 days prior to Easter Sunday.
Fasting from things is a regular discipline of my life, but not necessarily during Lent. While I haven’t set an end date, my most recent fast has accidentally coincided with the Lenten season. I’ve been fasting from tobacco for over a week. I like tobacco in nearly all forms and have been a moderate user since high school, when I immoderately chewed a can of Skoal every other day. Over the decades I’ve enjoyed Skoal, Levi Garrett, Marlboro Reds, Backwoods, and any expensive cigar someone might give me. (I wanted to like socially acceptable pipes, but for some reason they take the top layer of skin off my tongue.) For some periods I’ve gone months or years without any of the above. For the past few years I’ve been pretty steady with my moderate routine, except when I camp, which is why I chose to fast after a two-week camping trip through New Zealand.
I’ve called it a “routine” because when I use, it is an intentional choice to disconnect. It isn’t habitual, nor has it ever been addictive. In my current fast there were and are no cravings, headaches, shakes, etc. It has been like choosing to not use the same door when going into my house. There is a mindful choice but not a sense of need.
Every jump in spiritual maturity I’ve had has been preceded by discomfort.
While you may long for me to unpack the theology of Catholicism more, or how a pastor can use tobacco and be inside the will of God, I’m not going to unpack those topics further. I just want to stimulate you to reflect on your spiritual growth trajectory.
The hardest form of spiritual growth is when we make a mindful choice we don’t need to do. If we only pray when we need to, then it will only be in hospitals and court rooms. A great prayer life is evidenced by a person who makes a mindful choice to “pray at all times without ceasing.” If we only change things in our life when we reach rock bottom, then we are need-driven and not God-driven. We have to want to change things because we want to have more of the life of Christ coursing through our veins.
When I’ve gone without food for 10 days, I’ve had a clarity for decisions and life. Similarly, my current fast of eight days from tobacco has also brought some clarity. It isn’t about what we don’t have, but what we are choosing to want more of. What is the last thing you intentionally went without, in hopes of attaining more?
At its worst, Lent is an annual religious obligation. At its best, Lent is an example of what should be a regular occurence in our lives. What is the last thing you have given up that you didn’t need to give up? What was the last major growth spurt you had? To the horror of my seminary professors I say, “Here’s to being more healthily Catholic.” I’ll smoke to that.