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The Counter-Logic of Lent

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The traditional disciples of Lent are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. One way of seeing why these are so important is this quote by St. Augustine on anger, via the Laudator Temporis Acti blog (h/t Jose Mena):

Although no angry person thinks his own anger is unjustified, it grows upon him, and anger that becomes inveterate in this way passes into hatred, since the pleasureableness that accompanies an apparently justified resentment keeps it longer in the vessel until the whole thing grows sour and spoils the vessel. For this reason it is much better to be angry with no one, even when it is justifiable, than from apparently justified anger to slip by the stealthy tendency of passion into hatred of anyone. We have a proverbial saying about welcoming unknown guests that it is much better to endure a bad man than through ignorance to risk shutting out a good one from fear of welcoming a bad one. But with our passions the opposite is true: for it is beyond comparison a more beneficial thing not to open the shrine of our heart at the knock of even justified anger than to yield it entrance: once in, it will not easily be expelled, and it will grow from a sapling to a sturdy tree, since it boldly and shamelessly develops at an even greater speed than people imagine, for it is not put to shame in the darkness, when the sun has gone down upon it.

There are two ideas in this excerpt that are challenging. The first is that it is sometimes better to abstain from even legitimate feelings or passions if they could lead to vice. St. Augustine directly contrasts this with a second challenging idea. When it comes to hospitality, it is better to put aside fears that limit hospitality in order to be as generous as possible.

In other words, we should be skeptical with ourselves and generous with others. Our culture trains us to do the opposite. For example, we are frequently cautioned against giving money to individuals asking for it on the street. Well-intentioned warnings about not giving to drug addicts or alcoholics train us to let the fear of giving poorly trump the risk of “shutting out” someone who we would actually be helping. “Fear,” Marilynne Robinson has said, “has, in this moment, a respectability I’ve never seen in my life.” There is no end to the way fear or suspicion or even dislike of others can limit generosity.

When it comes to ourselves, however, we not only countenance legitimate passions that lead to vice, we even buy vice with virtue. In a recent issue of The Economist, an article examined the phenomenon of “moral licensing” in which people reward themselves for doing something they think is virtuous. The Economist quotes one study about a water-conservation campaign in Massachusetts. Compared to a control group, residents who did reduce water use compensated themselves by using more electricity. The “reward” canceled out the civic benefits of the virtuous action. Moral licensing lets us indulge in guilty pleasures, which we feel we deserve because we’ve done something good. So as much as we demand of others, there is no end to the excuses or clever rationalizations we make for ourselves.

Almsgiving and fasting embody a counter-logic to all this. Fasting reminds us that there can be good reasons to abstain from even fully legitimate pleasures. Almsgiving reminds us to give, hopefully in ways that expand our instincts to generosity. And prayer teaches us not to despair, and remember even as we are skeptical of ourselves, that God loves us.

Peter Blair

Peter Blair, Dartmouth '12, is the Editor-in-Chief of Fare Forward, and a contributing writer at The American Interest.