From The Voice: Give Yourself Up for Lent


Originally published on February 19th 2018, this article was taken from the Georgetown University Knights of Columbus’s column in The Georgetown Voice, entitled Gaudium et Spes. The column, written by members of the Georgetown University Knights of Columbus, appears online every other Friday.

By: Michael DeFelice

“We must, therefore, gain possession of ourselves, by asceticism, in order that we may be able to give ourselves to God.”

Thomas Merton

You may have seen people walking around with ash on their foreheads last Wednesday. This, of course, was not a result of the Georgetown community forgetting en masse to wash their faces that morning. It was part of the celebration of Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of the Lenten season, in which Catholics typically take on one ascetic practice or another in preparation for Easter.

Lent memorializes the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert preparing for his Passion, and precedes the Triduum, three days commemorating the Last Supper (Holy Thursday), Jesus’ crucifixion (Good Friday), and his resurrection (Easter). Just as Jesus fasted for 40 days, so, too, are Christians called upon to fast. We abstain from meat on Fridays and either give up some favorite snack (hopefully without unduly burdening Snaxa) or add a daily devotional such as a prayer or mass.

I must confess, however, that Lent has always been perplexing to me. It is meant to be a preparation for Easter, but what is there really to prepare for? Of course, Easter morning I’ll comb my hair and put on a nice shirt for mass, but do I really need 40 days?

Giving up chocolate is a common Lenten sacrifice. Yes, it’s hard when your Thin Mints finally show up the day before Ash Wednesday, but surely the sacrifices of a dessert-ascetic are a sufficient preparation for Easter?

Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and spiritual writer of the 20th century, changed my perspective on sacrifice. To give up and abstain from certain pleasures during Lent is not about trying to be a spiritual heavyweight. It might be uncomfortable to pass up meat on a Friday, but if the Stations of the Cross—the series of images depicting the crucifixion—tell us anything, is it not that this season was made possible by a suffering far greater than what I suffer by abstaining from bourgeois comforts?

In No Man is an Island, Merton wrote, “The saint, therefore, is sanctified not only by fasting when he should fast but also by eating when he should eat.” In other words, Merton rejects an asceticism that is merely flesh-deep, that is, an exercise in physical or mental toughness for its own sake.

Merton also warns against becoming a self-referential ascetic who focuses solely on the cares and concerns of the self: “They have tried to become spiritual by worrying about the flesh, and as a result they are haunted by it. They have ended in the flesh because they began in it, and the fruit of their anxious asceticism is that they ‘use things not,’ but do so as if they used them.”

What is crucial for Merton is that we do not simply practice sacrifice for self-improvement, or to instill good habits. Giving up must become a sacrifice, a giving up to God. This sacrifice, moreover, can become part of “the total offering of ourselves to God in union with the sacrifice of Christ.” When our Lenten commitments are sacrificial, they become more than just an exercise in self-discipline or spiritual endurance. They help us to become closer to and more intimate with God.

This is not to say that giving things up for Lent is shallow, but rather that it must be part of a sacrifice of ourselves to God if it is to exist on a higher plane than a New Years resolution. Even something as simple as giving up chocolate will help prepare for Easter, if it is part of a “spiritualization of our whole being through obedience to His grace.”  In obedience to God’s grace, moreover, we will be able to break out of our own self-interest and expand our perspective.

Of course, Merton’s words are not relevant only to those who have been raised or baptized Catholic. Throughout Merton’s No Man is an Island, Merton calls us out of ourselves, and in particular, to improve ourselves not for our sake, but for the sake of something greater. This message resonates well with one of Georgetown’s Jesuit values, Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, “for the greater glory of God.”

So give yourself up for Lent. This message came to mind when I read Merton on sacrifice. Each morning, we prepare ourselves for the day ahead. But for Easter, it is more than a matter of combing your hair and brushing your teeth.

Easter is the celebration of a supernatural event—Christ’s rising from the dead for the redemption of mankind—and so it makes sense that it would take more than a month of untangling ourselves from earthly attachments to achieve what Merton calls “a supernatural perspective.” It is with this perspective, attained after careful and prayerful obedience to God’s grace, that we will be able to understand the gravity and significance of Lent and Easter.


Beowulf as a Way Forward

Beowulf is an intensely spiritual work, which fuses Christian themes with pagan myth. Beowulf himself is a hero who can inspire us for our spiritual journeys in life, and teach us spiritual truths.

The poet sees the world as troubled by monsters—sin—with few powerful enough to stop them. Grendel represents the sin of hate or blood-lust, as his “glee was demonic, picturing the mayhem: before morning he would rip life from limb and devour them, feed on their flesh” (730-733). The dragon represents greed, because all has done is to “guard heathen gold/ through age-long vigils” (2276-2277). Just as the dragon terrorizes many, so does greed afflict many in our world. That the heroic Beowulf can triumph over Grendel and the dragon, and thus hatred and greed, provides hope that we too can be heroic and conquer our sins. The medieval world of Beowulf, however, is darker than simply being able to triumph over evil and sin. Grendel may be a descendant of “Cain’s clan” (106), but we are all descendants of Adam. The poem ends on a dark note, with grim forebodings of enemy tribes attacking, leaving the Geats, Beowulf’s people, “in the path of exile/ they shall walk bereft, bowed under woe” (3018-3019). The Geats, serving as a metaphor for humanity, show that we too are in a sort of exile from our home with God from before the fall. We too now are bereft and bowed under woe, in a land of sin (and this is all the more true from the point of view of a monk from the “Dark Ages,” where the sinfulness and depravity of humanity was more emphasized than today). In addition, even if Grendel is dead, there are plenty more “banished monsters,/ Cain’s clan” (105-106) to trouble people.

However, there is a still hope. Beowulf, if not quite a Christ-figure himself, at least serves as a reminder of Christ and a model of virtue to follow. As Beowulf goes to slay the dragon, he “added a thirteenth to their number” (2407). Subtracting Beowulf himself leaves twelve followers, calling to mind the twelve Apostles and Christ. Beowulf dies fighting against the dragon, a representation of sin, and defeats it but is himself killed—certainly at the very least the poet calling our mind to Jesus and His actions. In life, Beowulf was “the man most gracious and fair-minded,/ kindest to his people” (3181-3182). Beowulf fights against the dragon “for the glory of winning” (2514), not for gold or power. Indeed, “Beowulf’s gaze at the gold treasure/ when he first saw it had not been selfish” (3074-3075), and he never tried to obtain power by overthrowing the king even though he was stronger. Instead, he introduces himself as having “allegiance to Lord Hygelac” (261). Beowulf was a servant, when he could have been a master. He appreciated gold and its beauty, but did not revolve his life around it. Even though Beowulf has enormous power and strength, he never seems to give into pride. Instead, Beowulf relies on God for his success, as, after journeying to Denmark, he “thanked God/ for that easy crossing on a calm sea” (227-228). For all his power and heroism, Beowulf cannot control the weather, and so shows a reliance on God for his success. In his fight with Grendel’s mother, Beowulf and she are about equal, and in the end “holy God decided the victory” (1553-1554). Hrothgar says that Beowulf’s victory over Grendel only came “with the Lord’s assistance” (939). If even the best among us (Beowulf) needs God for victory, how much more so do we need the help of God to gain victory over sin.

Thus we can see that Beowulf provides a way forward in the dark world. Beowulf’s exemplary life is model for others. Beowulf’s death-wish was to have a Barrow be built so that crews could have a reference from which to navigate “as they steer/ ships across the wide and shrouded waters” (2807-2808). It would serve as “a marker that sailors could see from far away” (3158). Among the rocky cliffs of the sea and the rocky cliffs of life, Beowulf’s barrow and his life serve as a guide to reach the safety of shore or heaven. We, the sailors at sea, can see the right path to take by Beowulf’s barrow and metaphorically his life. It may not necessarily be a pretty life, as we are still in exile and even the greatest among us can die, while people like Unferth live, but by following Beowulf’s example and with God’s help we can “choose… the better part,/ eternal rewards” (1759-1760).

Dominic Lamantia is a sophomore in the Georgetown University College . He is the Inside Guard of the Georgetown Knights of Columbus

Priest, Prophet, King and The Lord of the Rings

There is no character named Jesus Christ in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. God also makes no appearance. The protagonists don’t attend church, or even pray. Yet The Lord of the Rings is a Catholic work, equal to or overshadowing C.S Lewis’s Narnia series in the depths of faith. Tolkien weaved Catholic theology, philosophy, and tradition throughout The Lord of the Rings, but he also despised the idea of allegory. Therefore, there is no character, such as Aslan in Narnia, who represents Christ. But there are characters, three in particular, who offer insights into the three traditional vocations of Christ: priest, prophet, and king.

ImageKing: Perhaps the easiest of Christ’s vocations to find in The Lord of the Rings is Aragorn. Aragorn is the “King returning.” Like Christ, he has an extensive lineage that dates back to the leaders of his people long ago and is fashioned by prophecy, but appears not in glory but humbly – “all that is gold does not glitter.” Aragorn reunites Arnor and Gondor through his reign and brings together the once feuding peoples of the Elves and Dwarves, as embodied by the friendship of Gimli and Legolas: how can one not see here parallels to Israel and Judah, or the Jews and the Gentiles? Aragon is a king that serves and heals. He does not meet the people’s expectations: he does not enter the city of Minas Tirith openly, and labors in shadows to defend the Shire with his Dunedain under the Hobbits’ noses. Nobility meets selflessness in the character of Aragorn, and the kingly vocation of Christ is quite easily noticed.

ImageProphet: Gandalf embodies many of the qualities and characteristics of the prophetic vocation of Christ. Certainly, Gandalf’s “death” hints at multiple moments in the life of Christ – for example, Gandalf wrestles with a demon in a deep underground tomb, dying only to return again in new form. That new form can also be seen as a “transfiguration” of Gandalf (bright white clothing and hair being a common feature); Gandalf’s struggle with a Balrog does not take place only under but also on top of a mountain. Like a prophet, Gandalf was sent by the benevolent gods of Middle Earth – the Valar – to work against Sauron. Also similar to many prophets, Gandalf does not originally desire to go, and he is mocked as unworthy by his compatriot Saruman. Saruman, as the foil to Gandalf, shows the temptation of the prophet fulfilled: taking power for his own. Instead, Gandalf guides without forcing, and his abilities come from knowledge, words and runes. Like Christ, Gandalf strangely balances the world of Middle Earth and the divine Valinor from which he comes, shaping in small ways the struggle against Sauron.

ImagePriest: Finding the priestly vocation in The Lord of the Rings is probably the hardest of the three – after all, there are no “priests” because there is no open religion. Yet, Christ’s role as priest plays out in part by Frodo in Tolkien’s tale. Frodo bears the Ring throughout the tale, the embodiment of temptation, sin, and evil – in a sense, like Christ he bears the weight of the evil of the past and present that grows ever heavier as he approaches the Ring’s ultimate destruction. Because of this, Frodo seeks silence and solitude often. As well, Frodo’s path mimics the Via Dolorosa, the “way of tears” leading to Christ’s crucifixion, as Frodo goes through hardship after hardship: abandoned by friends, (seemingly) betrayed, tempted and tired. Frodo then “dies” through Shelob’s sting and arrives in Mordor, a very representative Hell, which Frodo is forced to harrow to save those he loves. Frodo, in short, is the sacrificial lamb, contending with Gollum as the mirror of his own soul’s fight ultimately brings about a new world.

The insights, of course, only go so far. As no character is Christ, there are limitations to each of them. Frodo, after all, ultimately fails to destroy the ring. Gandalf’s role might better be described as an angel than as a prophet. They are, in some capacity, all mortal and all flawed. But each present a new way of understanding the vocations of Christ, vocations that all Christians are called to live out in their own times. In following Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn, we follow Christ: in work, in suffering, and in glory.

Michael Fischer is a senior in the SFS and a Knight of Columbus. He serves as Baking Scheduler for the Nightly Mass Community and President of the Alpha Sigma Nu Jesuit Honor Society.