Recently, a good friend of mine wrote to ask how my Lenten resolutions were faring. She was asking for a check-in at the mid-way point of Lent.
So how's my Lent going? Let me put it this way: I'm having a hard time dealing with my drinking problem.
You see, I've become quite well-known in my little circle as an expert Manhattan maker. You might know the formula: two parts bourbon, one part sweet vermouth -- lots of ice, cherry juice, a dash of bitters, and a couple of maraschino cherries on top. Everyone agrees; they're really tasty.
Well, I used to confine my drinking of Manhattans to occasions when friends would come over for supper. You know: a little cocktail with snacks and conversation before our meal. But lately I've been serving myself a Manhattan at the end of the day even when no one else is around. There's always an excuse. Even in retirement, I can convince myself that "It's been a hard day." Alternatively: "It's been a great day, and I should celebrate" -- or "Nothing special has happened today, so . . ." Or just: "It's 5:00!" That's the way my habit developed over the last few months.
Then a friend of mine made a remark that completely reframed my little addiction and also gave me a much deeper understanding of the reason for Lenten practices. When I offered him a Manhattan, he declined. He said his son was alcoholic, and as an act of solidarity with his son's efforts to resist alcohol, my friend too was giving it up.
At first I supposed he was thinking in terms of good example. But then I realized there was far more to it than that. After all, his son wasn't present to witness my friend's abstinence. Instead my friend was expressing his faith in the basic unity of all human beings far beyond his son. His abstinence was saying that acts of solidarity with others somehow influence them even when they are not physically present -- even when they're not consciously aware that those acts are being performed. That's a deep act of faith.
If true (and I believe it is) that conviction has powerful implications for the Lenten practices my other friend was asking about. It means that the whole Lenten penance thing goes beyond "giving things up." It even goes beyond expressing solidarity with those whose particular addiction is alcohol -- beyond abstaining from Manhattans for their sake. It's about raising spiritual consciousness concerning human solidarity in other spheres as well.
Because others are hungry, I have a hunger problem as well as a drinking problem. When I abstain from overeating, I somehow establish consciousness of my solidarity with them -- and influence them in some way. Similarly, because others are strung out, I have a drug problem. My problem is unemployment, poverty, and sexual discrimination. My problem is enduring the menace of drones and of American soldiers kicking in my front door in the middle of the night. What I do for Lent, I realized, should connect me with those problems.
My friend's refusal of my Manhattan moved me to stop drinking Manhattans on my own. It also taught me that the realization of human solidarity in addictions and other problems is the whole point of Lent and what we used to call "penance." All the rest is simply means to that end.
No, I take that back. The end isn't realizing human solidarity. The end is doing something about it.
And as Gandhi taught us, the end is mysteriously contained in the means -- however seemingly insignificant.