For those who are not in the Catholic loop, Ash Wednesday (and the Lental season) starts next week. Last year, the wife and I decided to celebrate Lent, with mixed success and additional insight into spirituality, especially communal religion. I enjoyed the experience overall, and my wife and I have decided to continue with our Lenten tradition this year as well.
We’ve been discussing what to give up for Lent, as last year’s giving up “eating out” brought about a lot of weird, unforeseen complications in defining what “eating out” exactly meant. I looked at what others gave up last year — shaving was an interesting one, along with coffee, cake, candy, carbs, TV, and so forth. This year, we’ve thought about going vegetarian, but that’s pretty much a part of the Lenten tradition to begin with. If you’re super hardcore, you only eat one meal a day, and it’s a light one, and it’s vegetarian. But with the wifey pregnant at the moment, this is probably not going to happen (though I might try it next year!).
Veganism was one that I have bandied about. I’m attracted to the idea of reducing your impact on the animal kingdom as much as possible. Also, one suggestion was to give up social networking, though that one seems much more daunting than veganism (ha!). I’ve also thrown around the idea of giving up buying anything plastic for a month, but this is incredibly difficult as well.
I suppose that’s what attracts me to Lent. It’s difficult, it’s hard, it’s structured, and it’s communal. Catholicism in general is all about community; in a recent article about the religious roots of labor laws and anti-discrimination laws, Nathan Oman writes:
For Martin Luther every individual came alone before the throne of God, stripped of the mediating influences of tradition, community, or priesthoods, seeking mercy for his exposed and sinful soul….
In contrast to Protestantism, Catholicism accepts the legitimacy of tradition in defining identity and insists that spiritual life requires participation in the “community of the saints.” The Catholic believer comes before the throne of God not as a naked and exposed individual but surrounded by saints, angels, the Blessed Virgin, and the interceding priesthood of the Church, all advocating on his behalf.
Reading this, I’ve realized that our Church is incredibly Protestant, and we have more in common with the oh so dreaded Evangelists than we’d like to admit. We believe in strict personal accountability, and this hyper-individualism shows in some of our cultural policies; food storage, for example, tends to breed some very strange psuedo-doctrines around it. The fact that in the U.S., the Jell-O Corridor tends to attract a lot of libertarians who dream of living “off the grid” isn’t a coincidence.
At the same time, Mormonism is supposed to be an intensely communal experience. We gather together to partake of the Sacramental emblems of Christ’s body and blood. We have meetings (oh, how we have meetings!) constantly, coming together in groups to try and solve problems the best we can. We pay fast offerings to help those in our community who are in desperate need for support. We link our generations back through the ages in an effort to bring all, both alive and dead, into the fold of Christ.
Growing up in a Korean community, I knew first-hand the benefits and detriments of living in a tight-knit tribe. On the one hand, I know that the community will support me, that they will sacrifice much to help me should I need it. On the other hand, my life is fettered by rules and obligations which I must pay — community membership is not free. I have no real privacy; it’s been a real battle trying to keep private affairs private within the Korean Mormon community the past few years. Still, I’m grateful for this ascribed status I was born into.
The need to throw off the shackles of community are a luxury only for the young, the rich, or the truly delusional. As I’ve grown older, my life has become an engrossing web of obligations, relationships, and communities. I am married, a participating member of my local congregation, an expecting father, and a brother and son. As I take on more responsibility, I find myself comforted that should the bottom ever collapse completely, there is a number of safety nets available to catch me. This simple fact helps me to sleep at night. Sure, my life also becomes more complicated with more rules and obligations, but at the same time, my life has become much more rich and varied, more stable and secure, more fulfilling and involved. I cannot at any time “drop out,” because people will miss me, they will wonder where I am, even if it’s because I’m not fulfilling my obligations. As someone whose natural response to pressure, conflict, or trouble is to “drop out,” I’m grateful that nobody around me will allow me to do so at the drop of a hat.
Which brings me to Lent. There’s something about the strict austerity of Lent that attracts me, sure, but there is also the communal participation of Lent that makes it so fulfilling. I am not Catholic; but I still consider them my brothers and sisters in the Christian faith and the family of God as a whole. To know that I am fasting in preparation for Easter, that most important of Christian celebrations, with the body of Christ, makes the entire experience incredibly fulfilling and, paradoxically, personal.
Why is it that even though I’m fairly active in my own Church, I find myself seeking out religious, spiritual communal experiences outside of it? To be perfectly honest, our church culture rarely offers such opportunities. I am blessed to be in a ward with rewarding Sunday meetings, but they still do not require much from the audience. We passively listen, parrot Correlation-appropriate answers to Correlation-approved questions, and then go home after three hours. The structure provides little opportunity for engagement. To be a fully active member, we certainly give a lot — 10%+ of our income, a considerable chunk of our time, not to mention a constantly tightening noose on what we can and can’t do, from what we eat to what we wear. But for some reason, community is difficult to achieve — almost every ward I’ve been in since I can remember has struggled with home teaching, and I’ve been in way too many wards filled with burned out parents who can barely raise their own children, let alone help those around them. This bizarre limbo we find ourselves in makes the following joke all the more biting:
Q: How many elders does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: One, though fifteen will sign up and never show.
Of course, in my later years, I’m surprised by just how much I craved community. My younger years involved me pathologically trying to shed myself of all the obligations and expectations the world had put on me. I regret that knee-jerk, immature reaction deeply. Now, with a wife and a coming child this summer, I find that I need the world more than ever, and I surround myself in the protective embrace of the community as much as possible. Sure, my younger self would scoff at my willingness to throw away what I once thought as dignity or freedom for protection, but I would do anything for my family, even debase myself if it comes to it. And in the end, I find the community anything but debasing.
What happened in our Church culture that has brought about this strange situation where we are willing to pay our dues (which are heavy), and we even have the structure set up to create strong, binding communities, yet we don’t invest time in them? Could it be that we’re so burned out from avoiding hot drinks, alcohol, paying tithing, going on missions, having kids and raising them, canning peaches for the basement, driving our teenagers to seminary while saving up to send them to BYU, fleeing R-rated movies, and forcing our children to sit still so we can have Family Home Evening that we just don’t have time for each other?
Or perhaps I’m approaching this question with the wrong perspective. How can we as Mormons foster strong, personal communities in the midst of a world where the average American will move seven times in his adult life? The older I get, the more I realize the truth behind the scriptures — we can’t do this alone. We must, as Mormon and Paul tell us, ultimately work out our salvation by ourselves; you can lead a horse to living waters, but you can’t force him to drink. But at the same time, to think that we can work out all of our salvation by ourselves is the epitome of pride. We do not serve each other and build communities because God commanded us to do so — we serve each other and build communities because, ultimately, we cannot save ourselves. Throwing away the “shackles” of spiritual community is a luxury for only the truly delusional. For the healthy, happy, financially secure Mormon, it’s easy to fall into the trap (yes, trap) that personal responsibility and agency is all we need to survive, but for the addicted Mormon, the clinically depressed Mormon, the struggling with faith Mormon, the recently bereaving Mormon, community is all we have, and it’s all we can rely on, since we cannot rely on ourselves.
I have no easy answers as to why Mormon community seems to suffer in so many areas, nor do I have any easy answers to how we can revitalize Mormon community living. But what I do find personally comforting is less the Lutheran view of Judgment, but the Catholic view Nathan Oman describes, of coming “before the throne of God not as a naked and exposed individual but surrounded by saints, angels, the Blessed Virgin, and the interceding priesthood of the Church, all advocating on his behalf.” I like that image. Sure, I’m naked and exposed, shivering and ashamed before the throne of God for my inadequacies, but I like to think my friend Eric will stand up and say, “Yeah, Ted was kind of too liberal for his own good, but he was a good husband.” My bishop from my teenage years will plead, “Remember that one time he helped this struggling kid out? We shouldn’t ignore that.” And, of course, Jesus himself will say, “He was misguided and selfish, too quick to choose the wrong before the right, but who hasn’t done that? He believed in me and trusted me to his fullest extent, and I have accepted him as my own.”
We shouldn’t have to go through this life alone. Nor did God intend us to.
With that said, who wants to celebrate Lent with us?