The calendar makes this the fourth Sunday of Lent in the Year of Our Lord 2023. That makes this Laetare Sunday, which parallels in significance the third or Gaudete Sunday of Advent. These days are periods for a lightening of the mood that dominates the rest of the Lenten and Advent seasons. Coincidentally, March 19 is also the feast day of Saint Joseph, husband and protector of the Blessed Virgin Mary and her divine Son. Saint Joseph has also been named the special patron of the Catholic Church. So it’s a big day for us theophages, though not as big as Christmas or Easter.
But enough of calendric considerations. What’s on my mind right now is the notion expressed in the title, and how to avoid it.
Contrary to the myths circulated by the Church’s enemies, Christianity is a religion of joy. After all, its Founder came among men to redeem us from our sins, from one end of Time to the other. We don’t practice and promote our faith or the virtues it exalts because they conduce to misery, but to happiness. Hilaire Belloc’s quatrain expresses it nicely:
Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
There’s always laughter and good red wine.
At least I’ve always found it so.
Sadly, during Lent that point is often obscured by the ubiquitous exhortations to sacrifice this, that, or the other thing. Today’s society recoils in horror from the very suggestion that we might be better off for a bit of temporary self-denial. We’ve lost the understanding and appreciation of delayed gratification that previous generations absorbed and internalized.
At one time, in an essay I can no longer locate, I wrote that a man’s possessions have almost as much power over him as he does over them. (“Almost as much” because he can get rid of them, whereas they can’t get rid of him.) While the extension of this idea to generalized self-indulgence is difficult and imperfect, there is some relevance to it, especially as regards our habits of consumption.
Like any other kind of habit, a habit of consumption gradually sinks below the threshold of consciousness. That is, we cease to be fully aware that we’re doing it. For some people, for example our old friend Smith, another person must call attention to the habit before Smith becomes aware of what he’s doing.
Of course, some repetitive behaviors are not habits. You don’t “habitually” breathe, eliminate, sleep, or check your blind spot before changing lanes; you do those things because you must, or your life will end. A habit of consumption will necessarily involve an optional behavior, not required for the perpetuation of life. For example, as has been well established by millions of studies, coffee is necessary to life. (It is, isn’t it?) However, putting milk into your coffee, though it starts as the conscious exercise of a preference, can become a habit. Over the years you may cease to think about it, except for those unfortunate mornings when you discover to your surprise that there’s no milk in the house.
Our exceedingly wealthy society is prone to habits of consumption. Our markets are dazzlingly efficient and our means are considerable; thus, for most of us, acquiring an ongoing supply of what we consume is relatively easy. It wasn’t always that way, which is one reason why our forebears were better at denying themselves something than are we.
Let a habit of consumption be interrupted involuntarily – “Honey, where’s the milk?” “Oh, I’m sorry, I forgot to get some.” – and we become freshly aware of what we’ve been doing. The degree of the attendant discomfort will depend on many things, though there nearly always is at least some irritation. That surge of awareness should carry a message: I’ve been doing this automatically. Sad to say, apart from the irritation over having been denied something we’d come to expect, no message arrives.
One seldom feels gratitude while indulging a habit of consumption.
The more habits a man has, the greater is the portion of his life that he spends unconscious. Socrates of Athens has told us that this is a bad thing: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” And while habits of consumption are to be expected to some degree, especially in a nation as rich as ours, unawareness of them is unreservedly negative.
One method for becoming more aware of them is the practice of voluntary self-denial: “For this season of the year, I’ll go without it.” The thing sacrificed enters into one’s consciousness: “I normally put milk in my coffee, but not today.” You become aware not only of what you habitually do but of why you do it. That actually improves the sacrificed indulgence – not “as a habit,” but as a source of pleasure and satisfaction.
As voluntary self-denial increases the percentage of your day you spend fully conscious, so does your awareness of how much you have to be thankful for. Gratitude follows naturally. But gratitude not only increases your happiness, it brings you closer to God. It does so even if you fail to make use of the moment to pray, though prayer is always to be encouraged.
But let’s not stop there, for the inverse is also true. As the percentage of your life spent unconscious increases, your overall happiness will decrease. You cannot be happy without being conscious of what you have, whether or not you feel you’ve earned it. If you know someone who seems to “have it all” but seems perpetually unhappy or unsatisfied, the probability is high that he seldom if ever gives conscious thought to how fortunate he is, and how grateful he should be.
Of course, nothing of great value comes without a price. The price may be monetary, or it may be effort. The increased happiness that arises from voluntary self-denial is paid for by the effort of forgoing that chosen thing. And there is a caveat: it’s possible to forfeit that increment of happiness by grumbling about the effort, as if it had been forced upon you by a divine Drill Instructor.
One of our founding documents speaks of “the pursuit of happiness” as a individual, God-given right. When Thomas Jefferson penned that phrase, he was probably thinking of the sort of material gain that free people can and do pursue. But heaping possessions around oneself is subject to the law of diminishing returns. Similarly, consuming without limit eventually causes the thing consumed to become a burden rather than a source of pleasure or satisfaction.
Occasional voluntary self-denials are a preventative for that trap. Best of all, they remind us of the ultimate Source of all that is good, and the gratitude He is owed.
Happy Laetare Sunday, Gentle Readers. May God bless and keep you all.