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.


From The Hoya: Our Essential Suffering

Originally published on 24th March 2017, this article was taken from the Georgetown University Knights of Columbus’s rotating column in The Hoya, entitled The Round Table. The column, written by members of the Georgetown University Knights of Columbus, is published every other Friday.

Image Credits:

By: Jack Segelstein

The first day of Lent is perhaps the busiest day of the year for Dahlgren Chapel. Far more Hoyas come to Mass on Ash Wednesday than attend weekly Sunday service, even though only the latter is morally obligated by the Catholic Church.

There are two ways to view this discrepancy. The first is with cynicism. People on campus and around the world come to Ash Wednesday mass because they “get something.” They receive a mark that distinguishes them as dutiful believers like voters sporting buttons on Election Day.

I am in no position to say whether this is true or to what extent it motivates Georgetown students. If it were true, however, it would smack of more than a little irony. The ashes are first and foremost a mark of penitence. They remind us of our sinfulness and mortality, which we are meant to remember throughout Lent.

It is not a “happy” day like Easter and Christmas, but one of solemnity, mortification and sorrow. Christians are spiritually called to walk and suffer with Christ as we remember his 40 days of fasting in the desert to prepare for the temptations of the devil and ultimately his death and resurrection.

My second perspective is hopeful, not cynical. Scores of Hoyas attend Ash Wednesday Mass because they are each responding with empathy and humility to the memory of Christ’s suffering. Thes ashes serve as a source of shame, not pride or ostentation.

But why the shame? For many, Lent is the epitome of Christianity’s ostensibly austere deprecation of humanity. It is often said that the Christian life is fundamentally one of guilt, tragedy and postponement until “eternal life” begins.

If I felt this to be true, I would not be Catholic. G.K. Chesterton, the 20th century Christian apologist, held that the natural — and most mysterious — state of the human person is joy. He felt Christianity better recognized this fundamental claim about humanity than did any other faith or philosophy.

Food tastes better when you are hungry. Assuming we have food available to us, we only allow ourselves to get hungry when we restrain ourselves and exercise discipline. Despite the “suffering” that is hunger, we are more fully rewarded for it when we get around to a meal.

This is, more or less, the logic of Lenten fasting, save for one crucial piece. Christianity shows us that hunger itself has intrinsic value, something that has nothing to do with later consuming food. The same applies to all suffering. In fact, all suffering entails a sort of joy.

I do not expect most of you to buy this. I was a recent convert to Catholicism when this principle — sometimes called the neighborhood of joy and pain — was first explained to me, and I was actually offended by it. I thought it perversely misunderstood the often-unutterable suffering in the world.

However, if you distill Christ’s life to one essential act,  he elected to suffer on the cross to save us. Yes, it was Christ’s destiny to die on the cross, but he exercised real, utterly human discipline in submitting to his captors and enduring each nail.

We are, then, profoundly Christ-like when we suffer. Further, we have the opportunity to offer our suffering for him precisely as he did for us. Far from perverting human suffering, Christ’s suffering allows it to be redemptive.

Perhaps some people object to my locating Christ’s essential action in suffering instead of love. But surely they are not mutually exclusive. Love is giving oneself over to another — it entails sacrifice and requires suffering. Indeed, there has never been a greater act of love in all of human history than Christ’s suffering on the cross.

While it is true that fasting — and its accompanying suffering — helps purge us of our sin, it does much more. It allows us to more fully love God and one another, thereby more closely resembling Christ. We wear the ashes in shame precisely so we have less reason to be ashamed

To all those observing Lent, suffer. Not mindlessly or masochistically, but lovingly. Call to mind your mortality and sinfulness, but remember how they make God’s love and suffering for us all the more remarkable. For this, rejoice.

Guest Post: Hearing the Divine Call by Max Bindernagel

Image Credits:

By: Max Bindernagel,  Chaplain in Residence in Georgetown University

“Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” 1 Samuel 3. 10 (NRSV)

Today, “discernment” is as popular a spiritual topic as any, and there seems to be a great interest, especially among young people, about how one can be best attentive to the voice of God.  Unfortunately, for many this tends to take the form of an “existential crisis” in one’s life.  People searching for God’s will torture themselves over the many questions (often good, legitimate ones) which accompany this search: What does God want from me?  When will he let me know?  How can I hear him?  Out of a genuine concern for doing God’s will and following the promptings he inspires in one’s heart, this search easily becomes fraught with all kinds of needless anxiety.

A helpful corrective comes from Bl. John Henry Newman, the 19th century English theologian, convert, and cardinal.  In his homily “Divine Calls,” Newman comments on the many examples of God’s call as seen in Scripture, especially the call of Samuel.  The common theme among the many instances in which God prompts various men and women to do his will lies in the response: “prompt obedience.”  Like Samuel, who, once he knew Whom he was hearing, obeyed and listened attentively, so too we ought to eagerly and quickly obey the promptings of God in our own heart.  There is something childlike in the trust that this requires; if we know and trust that God has our good in mind, what reason do we have to be anxious?

But how do we hear that voice in the first place?  Newman was not satisfied with those who said that God’s call has already been answered by us when we were baptized, and who say that it therefore remains “not a thing future with us, but a thing past.” On the contrary, God is constantly at work in our lives, and our labor is to respond consistently to his ever-deeper call to holiness.

In the daily trials of life, often “indefinite and obscure,” “sudden and unexpected,” we answer God’s call by obeying him.   We learn something new which we know to be true but which we find difficult to accept; and we follow God’s will by accepting it rather than fighting it.  We deal the loss of a loved one, and through much grieving and pain we come see that God alone endures; and in this we follow God’s will.  We are challenged by a situation in which we must choose to stand by our faith or to abandon it; and in remaining steadfast, we follow God’s will.

For those who make a regular practice of this prompt obedience, the “bigger questions” about discerning one’s vocation will be shown with greater clarity.  When we follow God’s inspirations in the small things in life with greater ease (in the circumstances of life, in our conscience, in studying our faith), we develop a deeper attentiveness to God’s greater plan for our lives.  This work of answering the Divine Call is one of mutual trust, where our freedom and his are totally intertwined.  As Newman puts it:

“This is a call to higher things; let us beware lest we receive the grace of God in vain. Let us beware of lapsing back; let us avoid temptation. Let us strive by quietness and caution to cherish the feeble flame, and shelter it from the storms of this world. God may be bringing us into a higher world of religious truth; let us work with Him.”

This essay was written with reference to a homily by Bl.  John Henry Newman. 


The Truth about the Ashes

Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons

 By: Board of the Georgetown University Knights of Columbus

This Wednesday, March 1, a curious sight will return to Georgetown’s campus as many, young and old, walk their daily routes with crosses of ashes marked across their foreheads.

To the outside observer, this occurrence might seem a bit odd, but to a Roman Catholic, the practice presents a different meaning, denoting that Ash Wednesday has arrived, and with it, the season of Lent leading to the Easter holiday.

Look below to find answers to important questions about Ash Wednesday presented by the Georgetown University Knights of Columbus.

Do you have to go to mass?

The first question that might arise for a Catholic on Ash Wednesday might be: “Is this a holy day of obligation?”

The answer to that question is no, however, it is recommended that one make an effort to attend a mass on this day, and receive their ashes.

On campus, traditional masses with a distribution of ashes will be held in Dahlgren Chapel at 12:10 p.m., 5:00 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. with an ecumenical service also featuring a distribution of ashes offered at 7:30 p.m.

Just off campus, the Holy Trinity Catholic Church will host Ash Wednesday masses at 7:00 a.m., 8:00 a.m., 10:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.

What do the ashes mean?

In the simplest terms, the ashes distributed at the start of Lent are marks of repentance. They are an acknowledgement of the frailty, or the imperfection of all Catholics as human beings.

In recognizing the faults symbolized in the ashes, Catholics are meant to re-affirm their connection to God. Catholics then strengthen this bond throughout Lent when they fast, or alternately, make an effort to do good works for others.

Where do the ashes come from?

According to some sources, the Ash Wednesday holiday harkens back to an ancient practice of repentance seen as early as the story of Jonah and the people of the sinful city of Nineveh.

Upon hearing that God would destroy Nineveh in 40 days if they did not change their ways, the Ninevites “great and small” began fasting, wore sackcloth, and even their king “covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in the ashes.”

Early Christian communities adopted the practice of outwardly marking repentance with ashes, with the ritual appearing in the Roman Missal—the book which guides priests through the rites of the mass—as early as the eighth century, or the 700s A.D.

The ancient practice has been observed into the modern day, with one parish in Galway, Ireland, this year instituting a drive-thru service for its busy and mobile population.

“It’s about meeting people where they are,” Fr. Paddy Mooney, the priest of the parish told The Irish Catholic, a local Catholic media outlet. “We’re just putting [the initiative] in front of people to help them think of Lent, as a reminder of it.”

But what is the truth about the ashes?

The truth about the ashes is that they arise from a tradition over 2,000 years old—they serve to connect Catholics to past generations of believers, even as the Catholics wearing them today seek to bring themselves closer to God.


A Monday Blog Post: Being Active in Faith

I write to you all on this federal holiday observed in remembrance of the life of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in order to introduce a new series of posts that will continue for the rest of the semester. The new Monday blog series will be a chance for members of Georgetown’s Council 6375 of the Knights of Columbus to engage their faith and to create posts that encourage reflection, learning and thoughtful dialogue within the Georgetown community. It is my hope that the many varied interests of the members of our council will enliven this page from week to week and will encourage the type of introspection and insight that occurs for many within the walls of a church on Sunday to enter into the rest of the week.

I think that it is appropriate at the present time to reflect upon some of the words of Dr. King, who wrote in his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in 1963 that: “If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.”

In this passage, Dr. King expressed his disappointment with many, but not all of the clergy in his place and time, whom he saw to be silent in regard to, or even supportive of the dominant system of segregation that still pervaded his society. However, his statement is still thought provoking today in the twenty-first century. It spurs people of faith to confront their own consciences and beliefs in the light of the example of the early church, and the strong faith of the martyrs, such as Saint Lucy, patron saint of eyes, who was blinded and killed during the Roman persecutions of the early fourth century.

Perhaps the best way to engage with the words of Dr. King in our own lives today would be to hear the call of Mary to the servants of the wedding at Cana from yesterday’s Gospel reading. In commanding the servants to follow her son, Mary said: “Do whatever he tells you”.

Let us all remember that in order to bear relevance upon our lives, a faith must be an active one. Let us show by our actions that we do not belong to an “irrelevant social club,” but to a dynamic community in which we hear the call to go out and “[d]o whatever he tells [us].”


Divinity and Humanity: Incomparable by Nature?


A belief in God or religion has often been used to advance scholarly arguments that attempt to discredit the notion of a human-like God. For example, David Hume’s Dialogues is a simulated conversation between philosophers who use reason in an attempt to gain a greater understanding about the nature of God. One character, Philo, affirms his belief in god as “the original cause of the universe,” treating his existence as “unquestionable and self-evident,” but he challenges his friend Demea for using analogical reasoning to ascribe human characteristics and traits to God (Hume, 44). Philo argues that God is “infinitely superior to our limited view and comprehension;” therefore, it would be unfair to attempt to describe God’s nature as having a “likeness to the perfections of a human creature” (Hume, 44). Since “we have no experience of divine attributes and operations,” even traits such as “wisdom, thought, design, and knowledge” – traits that are considered virtuous among men – are inappropriate to describe God’s nature since they are concepts that only operate within the scope of human understanding (Hume, 45).

Another character, Cleanthes, objects to Philo’s claim and explains how his observations of the world around them – as “one great machine subdivided into lesser machines” – lead him to believe that nature’s complexity is indeed indicative of an intelligent designer, who he likens to a craftsman (Hume, 45). Philo responds in turn by pointing out that Cleanthes’ argument is flawed for its use of “weak analogies,” because he is drawing comparisons between the universe as a whole and certain parts of the universe; for example, it is reasonable to conclude that a house has an architect behind it, but when a house is compared to the universe the dissimilitude between both cases will “diminish proportionally the evidence” (Hume, 46).

However, Philo continues to take issue with the idea of anthropomorphizing God, and he states that doing so will “renounce all claim to infinity in any of the attributes of the deity” (Hume, 68). He explains that the mind of God should not have the likeness of a human mind, when our minds are possessed of limited understanding. Moreover, Philo points out that it becomes impossible to assert that God created the world perfectly; in short, if God’s work bears a likeness to “human art and contrivance,” then it is unreasonable to believe that he is “free from every error, mistake, or incoherence in his undertakings” (Hume, 68-9). Lastly, Philo debunks the analogical argument by arguing that it leaves open the possibility of polytheism, since multiple gods can be responsible for creating the universe in the same sense that it can take several people to build a house – thereby further “limiting the attributes of each” deity (Hume, 70).

Later on, these philosophers decide to confront the ‘problem of evil,’ or why a monotheistic god would allow moral disorder and a miserable world to exist when it is assumed that he has “infinite power, infinite wisdom, and infinite goodness” (Hume, 103). Philo expounds on the futility of proving these assumptions, given the requirement: “you must prove these pure, unmixed, and uncontrollable attributes from the present mixed and confused phenomena, and from these alone” (Hume, 103). Ultimately, Philo is asserting that if God’s attributes cannot be inferred from nature with certainty, then there can be no conclusive way to establish the nature of God; hence, the analogical argument is a failure.

Written By: Eddie Morles