John F. Kavanaugh

This is what Yahweh asks of you: only this, to act justly, to love tenderly and to walk humbly with your God Micah 6:8
What would Lent mean in a culture with a powerful undertow toward depersonalization? Such a culture is our own: capitalist, consumerist, individualist. Without denying its mighty achievements in productivity, medicine, science, entertainment, comfort and the rest, it should be admitted that our culture also erodes personal life.

We are taught that our worth is largely external: what we own or earn, what we produce, how we look, how we perform. Pressures of work and the lure of distraction restrict our time for each other, even those closest to us. Anyone who denies intrinsic personal dignity signs the permit for every form of injustice: from abortion and capital punishment, reckless war-making and neglect of the starving to exploitation of the working poor and the sad abandonment of the sick-old. While yearning for something better, we let ourselves crave for what is merely more. And somehow the fear of our own vulnerability, mirrored in our most fragile brothers and sisters at the beginning and end of life, has led some thinkers to exclude them from our club of meaningful persons and self-made men or women.

Lent, in this context, takes on a whole new meaning and offers a subversive opportunity. The discipline associated with the Lenten season becomes not so much a search for practices of asceticism, self-control or, at its most extreme, even punishment as it is a disengagement from the patterns of depersonalization. Positively stated, it is an opportunity to learn (a core meaning of the word discipline, from the Latin discere) about being related to a personal God and becoming more zealous disciples (again, that word) of God made flesh in the person of Jesus.

Just as a depersonalizing culture can colonize every aspect of life, the disciplines of personalism must touch every part of us if we are to reclaim ourselves as persons for a personal God. Entire books could be writtenindeed they have been writtenabout each of these disciplines, but I will do little more here than name them.

1) Interiority. Even 10 minutes of solitude a dayon the porch, at the window or in a chapelcan get us in touch with ourselves. Who or what am I when I am not producing, pretending, planning or filling myself with noise? Might we discover that the unique gift we can bestow on the world is our capacity to give and receive love, hope and faith? In each of these virtues we are made vulnerable yet empowered as persons.

2) Intimacy. Take a weekly one-hour walk with someone you care about. I once recommended this as a penance in the sacrament of reconciliation. The penitent told me that his wife might think he was having a nervous breakdown. Alas, so far have we come from the wonderfully ordinary and free. But as my penitent found out, we too may realize that our fostering of community in friendship or family, our allowing ourselves to be known more deeply is the only way to feel more deeply loved.

3) Solidarity. Take a public stand on an issue of justice. Write, speak or march. But realize that your issue makes sense only if your stand is against all forces that treat human beings as expendable things.

4) Simplicity. Travel more lightly. Not because things are bad, but because all things are for persons and the glory of God. You might try by giving away some things you have not touched in two years. The point in simplicity is to make more time for solitude, friends and service.

5) The Marginal. Face down fears and walk humbly into the life-world of the handicapped, the terminally ill, those in nursing homes, people in jails or hospitals. We will find out that we are all handicapped, terminal and in some ways captive. Some of us can pretend better than others. Those who cannot pretend teach us that even in our most humble states, we can evoke love. They will help us pray. They will help us see each other. What is more, when the culture clamors for it, we will be less likely to kill them.

Notice, none of these disciplines feed the Market Moloch. Perhaps that is why they are not very highly valued in a capitalist society. You don’t have to spend a penny to do them. They do not require you to reject the nice things of a consumer society; they just help you resist being enslaved by them.

There are some people particularly adept at one or other of these practices, but I think all of us need a little bit of each. Prayer alone will not fully move us if we neglect our relationships or the poor. Some spend most of their lives working with the marginal or needy, but without prayer and community, they likely burn out. People who tirelessly labor for justice, but are unaware of their own interior poverty or need for solidarity, can become commissars. Cultivating relationships without a connectedness to the larger, often broken world or one’s own brokenness will yield a comfortably shared narcissism.

To resist a consumerist culture that weaves itself into every fabric of our lives, we must engage our personhood with our whole heart, our whole mind, our whole being. Not only will we find ourselves more able to counter the culture’s dogmas; we will also be more ardent disciples of Christ and encounter the very source of our being. It is not a grinding machine, but a community of persons called Trinity.

John F. Kavanaugh, S.J., is a professor of philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis, Mo.

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