Paradoxes and the Purpose of Lent

I know paradoxes are compelling and provocative and mystical and all that good stuff, but I’m not a big fan. Sure, they’re not contradictions in that they are impossible and make no sense, but they are seeming contradictions, and they often have the effect of cheap Eastern theological thrills playing on the problem-solving region of our brains.

Visual paradoxes are much more interesting than written ones.

Visual paradoxes are much more interesting than written ones.

One of the problems of my relationship with paradoxes is the fact that I’m Catholic and a lot of awesome Catholics love paradoxes and so I’m surrounded by them daily. G.K. Chesterton is a paradox factory, St. Paul spouts paradoxes like it’s his job, and, paradoxically, even one of the most logical Catholic thinkers of our time, Peter Kreeft, purports to love paradoxes.

The quintessential Catholic paradox can be found in what’s known as the Prayer of St. Francis:

For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

I think a few of my brain cells die every time I hear that…

My point is that, yes, there can be some great insight coiled up in paradoxes, but it takes a talented thinker to wield the device without breaking things and sounding ridiculous. For example, during an Ash Wednesday Mass one year, a priest dropped what appeared to be the paradox of all paradoxes. He said that, during Lent, people usually give up something bad (like smoking, or overeating, or misuse of paradoxes). But, he said, to really get into the spirit of Lent, you should give up something good.

Wha?????

He said that giving up something that’s good for you is a bigger sacrifice than giving up something that’s bad for you. Of course, that’s true, but it confuses the point of giving something up for Lent in the first place. We’re not supposed to give things up in order to feel pain and suffering. We’re supposed to give up things in order to grow closer to God. If that process is painful, then so be it, but giving up something good isn’t necessarily going to help in that quest.

To demonstrate, I’d like to offer a thought experiment. Let’s say there’s a saint whose only happiness comes from doing God’s will. In order to get in the spirit of Lent, should he give up something good? Should he give up praying or helping others or loving the unloved? That would be a dramatic sacrifice for this saint, but, he would be doing less of God’s will in the process. That’s not the point. That’s exactly the opposite of the point!

Sacrifice is not good in and of itself. It’s only good as a means to growing closer to God. An analogy is a hangover. If a person drinks too much alcohol, he will inevitably get a hangover. The headache and nausea are the sensations of a body returning to optimal health from intoxication. The pain isn’t the goal, it’s the means to get to the unintoxicated state. Similarly, sacrifice isn’t the goal in life. The goal is optimal spiritual health and being one with God. Sometimes that requires sacrifice (like stopping drinking) and sometimes that requires pain (like the hangover). But other times it doesn’t.

This stems from a dispective of the word sacrifice. In modern parlance, sacrifice means to give something up for a greater good, but it is derived from the Latin sacrum facere, that is, to make (facere) sacred (sacrum). We should be moving toward the sacred and whether that involves giving things up depends on the situation.

Juan de Valdés Leal - The Sacrifice of Isaac

Juan de Valdés Leal – The Sacrifice of Isaac

Lent is about growing closer to God, and for most of us sinners, that means sacrificing the worldly goods in order to gain spiritual goods. But when sacrifice becomes the goal, we miss the point of the whole enterprise. When that’s the case, sacrificing sacrifice may be the best sacrifice in order to gain spiritually. How’s that for a paradox?