Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Being Good Means Not Always Doing What I Want

In light of this truth existentialism begins to look like the philosopher's temper-tantrum.

We have announced this year's Lenten observances to the children. The sales department still needs to do its thing, though.

At this stage, of course, we are not really training their wills, we are simply acclimatizing them to the 'Catholic Way,' getting them familiar with this thing called Lent. The will thing will come in later in life. At times like this, when you need to explain to another what you have already accepted, you realize you need to refocus on the basic truths too.

Again with the Desert Fathers. Why did they seem to make the Christian life all about not eating, having sexual intercourse, or talking, etc.? I used to think this was an all too obvious extension of the Gospel until I went to graduate school with Protestants. They don't see Catholic asceticism that way. Remember, Luther thought celibacy unnatural. And, do you ever hear about Protestants fasting? Okay, occasionally. But growing up as I did, attending Sunday School at the United Church of Canada, fasting was something you associated with exotic or primitive people, not Christianity. Jesus fasted for 40 Days once and for all. That is what you did in the olden days. So, what do Catholics think?

You can't say we fast because Jesus did, end of story. Jesus went to the synagogue and washed his hair with oil. I have done neither of those two things, and perhaps never will. (Although I really would like to see a prayer service in a synagogue some day.) Nevertheless, there is a strong Biblical basis, in fact, New Testament basis - in addition to a natural law basis - for fasting and other forms of penance. Why did Jesus fast is the key question. To leave us an example, since, in fact, his will did not need training. He left us this example because He knew that we would need to do things like this in our relationship with God. Doing the good is one half of holiness; the other half is not doing evil. St. Paul talks about training ourselves in this (just as Aristotle did). Virtue is a power to do and to not do. We need to strengthen our bodies and our wills to do the good and to abstain from doing evil.

Why would we do evil? Because it has a certain attractiveness, it has a certain good attached to it: drinking a lot feels good, illicit sex feels good, yelling feels good, hitting feels good, detraction feels good, eating too much feels good. The greatest sins aren't always the ones with which we need to most frequently contend. The desire to hit someone is a rare experience for me - fortunately. The desire to eat too much - when do I not have that?! Sexual desire is a frequent, but not constant thing. It's not that sex is wrong, eating is wrong, hitting is wrong per se, but our desire for these things does not usually precisely correspond to when we should actually do them. I want to hit when I am angry, not only or primarily when I ought to, or because I ought to. The transformation from wanting to hit only when it is good to do so is precisely the transformation from what I am now to what I should be.

In effect, we move away from doing things because they feel good to doing them because they are good. This is what Lenten penance is about. I am accustomed to doing things because I like how they feel. Will I ever stop living this way? Only if I decide that that is not how I should live, that that is not the way to glorify God the most. There is nothing like the feeling of _____. Smoking a cigarette? Eating a Big Mac? Making love to your wife? You can answer that one for yourself. Well, of course what ever you put in there is false because faith and reason tell me that those feeling would be dim ones compared to the beatific vision. Just because you like them doesn't mean you wouldn't actually prefer the vision of God. But I wonder - take marital love for instance - is there nothing other than the pleasure of it that ought to come into your consideration when doing that? I don't really wonder. I know that I should be diligently considering the good of the other, the meaning of marital love itself, our human nature itself, etc. We easily lose perspective because of pleasure. I love to sleep in but should I? Is sleeping in costing anyone anything? Often it does cost. And strength of will comprehends these costs and helps to keep in focus the true good. It's good to eat Big Macs, but not when you are at risk for heart disease and not when others around you are hungry too.

Pleasure is not bad. In fact, it is good. Yet it cannot itself fulfill us, to lead us to true pleasure. Our reason is better at this than our desire. And so Lent is about freeing ourselves from the constant pull of pleasure, so that we may begin to be led by our knowledge of the fuller good. This is our prayer. May God gives us the grace to reason and not simply respond to immediate pleasurable stimuli!

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