Ash Wednesday: The Importance of Being Miserable

I think a large reason why the world is in the state that it is in is because we Christians have lost the art of doing penance. Our predecessors, even those of a mere century ago, would have regarded us with utter contempt in this regard. I mean, we’re the kind of people who consider meatless Fridays to be just too difficult most of the time, and this in an age where fewer of us than ever make a living at manual, calorie-intensive labor.

I don’t just mean that things are how they are because we sin freely and make no restitution for it, though that’s certainly true. I mean it more in the sense that we lack the qualities that acts of penance create and sustain.

You see, doing penance – serious, or at least moderate, penance – whatever else it may achieve, necessarily teaches us one of the most valuable skills that we can possess: the ability to be miserable. If you can be miserable and still keep to your resolutions, then you can do anything.

Because, of course, sooner or later you will be miserable. Being made miserable is something completely outside of your control: any idiot your meet on the street or happen across online can cause you pain, and any accidental sequence of events can leave you sick or exhausted or hungry or annoyed.

But if you can stick to your resolutions – whether they be moral or business or health related or what have you – then you will have effectively taken the power of chance and external influence out of the equation. The more miserable you can be and still keep going, the stronger and more effective you will be.

On the other hand, if we, as a body, consider the misery of limiting our diet for one day a week, or of going hungry for a day or two to be just too much to bear…well, we can see just how effective the Church has been lately for ourselves, now can’t we?

The society we live in is always the kind of society that results from the dominant populations being made up of certain kinds of people. And which populations are dominant is itself partly due to what kind of people comprise it, and we are the kind of people we are because of what we habitually do or do not do. In short, an excellent way to make sure that Christians have minimal influence is to allow or encourage them to be the kind of people who cannot endure to be miserable. And, contrariwise, if we want to ever have an actual effect on the world, we need to learn to be miserable again.

The good news is that we’re sure to get plenty of opportunities for practice.

I notice this is a pattern: spiritually beneficial things tend to have built-in practical benefits as well. Which, of course, is what we should expect.

This is all written primarily to myself, of course, since I’m no better at doing penance than most of my contemporaries.

It’s alarming, of course, and not just because of the immediate prospect of discomfort. If that were all, it wouldn’t be so difficult. No, what I think we fear is the knowledge that once we develop the habit of accepting discomfort, then our whole lives will become much less comfortable. We won’t be able to make those same excuses to get ourselves out of disagreeable positions, because we’ll know that we’re capable of enduring much worse than this. The self-deception that allows us to say “well, I can’t really be expected to do such-and-such” will be gone, and we’ll just have to endure the pain and unpleasantness of such-and-such.

In short, we’re afraid of what might be asked of us once we admit that we could do it. It’s not incapacity we fear, but capacity and with it the responsibility to forego many good and pleasant things: comfort, safety, relationships, all that will now be on the table if we once develop the ability to suffer. I think this is another reason why Our Lord commands us to do penance: He doesn’t want us to be able to make that excuse. He wants His servants to be the kind of people who can be effective in the world.Inadequate results are one thing; not trying is something else.

I feel uncomfortable writing the above, because it feels like I’m discrediting my own defenses. That probably means I’m close to the mark.

Let’s start getting serious this Lent. It’s high time to learn to be miserable again.

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