Douglas: Religious traditions have secular value


Sam Douglas, Columnist

Fasting is a blast. I’m not talking specifically about abstaining from food and water, although I’m sure that has its draws. What I’m talking about is mental and emotional fasting. Let me explain.

I’m not a practicing Catholic. I get the Sheil Catholic Center’s email newsletters because I checked a box on my Northwestern application, and I’ve been to church twice since moving to Evanston. However, I was raised Catholic. I was baptized, reconciled and confirmed, but due to certain Vatican rules and teachings, it’s difficult to continue my faith in such a staunchly conservative institution. Pope Francis is a relief to my liberal leanings, but there’s only so much one man can do, even one with the power to speak ex cathedra — with papal infallibility.

Having lost contact with my Catholic roots, my desire to rekindle that relationship is limited, but parts of the teachings have remained with me: I will always go to church on Easter and Christmas; I recognize the importance of being thankful, generous and kind — and Lent is my favorite season.

Don’t worry. I’m not trying to convert you. But hear me out. This stuff is great. In the liturgical year, Lent consists of the 40 days leading up to Easter. These represent Jesus’ 40 days in the desert, during which he had neither food nor water. In keeping with his example, Catholics are instructed to fast during this time as well. Because Catholicism’s rules are less stringent than those of Islam’s Ramadan, people generally abstain from giving up food and water during daylight hours. We tend to choose the road less difficult: stop eating chocolate, go the gym every day or (when I was a second grader) give up doing homework.

After the revelry and feasting of the days before (Carnival and Mardi Gras, the closest the Church gets to celebrating the seven deadly sins), Lent kicks off with an extravagantly dismal day known as Ash Wednesday, when priests paint ashes on the foreheads of the faithful in the shape of a cross to remind them of their mortality. This is my favorite part. As a kid, I thought it was super cool to have a religious reason to get my face dirty; now, I recognize the importance of the day even though I tend to distance myself from its origins.

To me, Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season offer a time to examine what is important. For 40 days, I can weed out the parts of my life I find distracting or cumbersome. By the same token, Lent also gives me the opportunity to try something new or better. Lent is a chance to test-drive failed New Year’s resolutions. The best part? It’s only 40 days. If the drive doesn’t go well, don’t buy the change.

But often it does. After 40 days, I’ve found I can break my knuckle-cracking habit, I can temper expressions of distaste or distance my reliance on social networking. When Easter arrives, I’ve formed better habits of diligence, thoughtfulness and health that for some reason give me a sensation of cleanliness.

Do I feel weird participating in a Catholic religious tradition if I’m not actively digesting the body and blood of Christ every Sunday? No. Although the Catholic Church’s goal for the Lenten season is one of penance and penitence, for me Lent is more about perseverance. The triumph of making a commitment for 40 days and holding true to it should not be underrated. Of the many traditions of the Catholic Church, I’m proud to participate in this one. It fits so easily  in my busy secular schedule, and I always like a good challenge.

So, if you see me on Wednesday with a black smudge on my face, know that it’s not because I have the plague or fell down in exhaust-packed snow. I’m just taking parts of myself for a test drive; hopefully I’ll find something I can buy.

Sam Douglas is a Communication sophomore. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].