Lenten Addictions

Lent is the time in the liturgical year when preachers, for better or worse, are more apt to commend spiritual practices from the pulpit.

This makes sense because historically Lent was a time of preparation for the catechumenate, a time of über-intense discipline for the adults preparing for baptism on Easter Sunday.

Of course, today, that original context is ancient history for most. Still, it’s fascinating that within American Protestantism (where eating fish on Fridays doesn’t count) the singular practice that seems to have stuck, the one that has transcended its religious roots is the increasingly vague practice of “giving something up.”

I’ve recently been pondering if there’s something in this practice that makes it an especially easy fit for people living in America in late modernity. My suspicion is that the reason that “giving something up” has stuck has something to do with addiction. Let me explain.

Two weeks ago I was in front of the campus ministry where I serve, handing out hot chocolate to students as they passed by on their way to class — it was, after all, quite cold. Most students would graciously take the hand-warming offering. Others would just pass by. But twice, within a matter of minutes, I had a pair of students tell me, “I can’t take it. I gave up chocolate for Lent. I’m, like, addicted to it.”

Overlook for a moment that giving up chocolate for Lent is case and point for sociologist Anthony Giddens’ assertion that, in late-modernity “[t]radition dissolves into kitsch, souvenirs and trinkets.” For me at least, it was the “I’m, like, addicted to it,” that stood out.

Lent has been around for a long time (at least as early as the Council of Nicea), and its history as a time of deep preparation for the catechumenate is well documented. Addiction is in its infancy by comparison . According to Giddens, “The idea of ‘an addict’ was unknown in the nineteenth century.”  It’s well into the twentieth century that people begin talking about anything resembling “drug addiction,” “sex addiction,” “Facebook addiction,” or that most insidious of all addictions: “chocolate addiction.” Giddens helps us to understand a Lent where giving up chocolate makes sense when he argues, “Like tradition, addiction is involved with the hold of past over present.

Rather than this being ritual, moral and collective, in the case of addiction it is personal and driven by anxiety and insecurity.”  What Giddens points out is that the decline of tradition in late modernity is necessarily accompanied by the rise of addiction. The ascendancy of addiction, itself a private quasi-tradition, is only made possible by the decline of communities steeped in tradition.

So in late modernity, we get Lenten practice that, at best, becomes private and therapeutic, with addiction, unsurprisingly, taking center stage.

“I gave up chocolate for Lent. I’m, like, addicted to it.”

This is the conclusion I’ve come to: if Lent is just about kicking my personal bad habits, honestly, I’m really not all that interested. I suspect that going to a therapist would likely be more effective.

But nevertheless, I am left wondering if it wouldn’t be possible to recapture and reimagine parts of Lenten discipline that aren’t so easily co-opted by our fetish with addiction. And, I think that contrary to Giddens, such traditions are ripe for being enlivened.

In the campus ministry where I serve, the students decided to do daily prayer this Lent, to have morning, midday, and night prayer five days a week. And, a couple of weeks in, people are actually showing up for something involving (1) ritual; (2) repetition; (3) notions of truth.  Such practices buck the idea of Lenten pietism as something resembling a private tradition, the hallmark of addiction. Moreover, they turn the focus from oneself — “my addiction is…” — to God, “Merciful God we praise you,” and to others, “you welcome our concerns for others, O God…”

I know: three-times-a-day daily prayer won’t stick in every congregation. Nevertheless, as you slog through Lent, do so with an awareness that people really are looking for significant practices. And the ways we talk about practices and disciplines from the pulpit do matter. So, please, don’t let folks blandly assume that Lent is simply about turning down hot chocolate on a cold day because it’s their “addiction.” Don’t be afraid during this contemplative and penitential season to verbally unmask where tradition has been supplanted by addiction — where Christian discipline has become little more than self-help. And avoid getting caught up in the anything-is-better-than-nothing brand of fatalism that risks making kitsch something that is celebrated as the genuine article.

Don’t sell Lent short. In this season we’re preparing one another for the life made possible in the resurrection. So in your preaching, help your congregations to imagine deep Lenten practices that draw us outside of ourselves to others and to God.

And if you just have to give something up (because, let’s face it, habits are hard to break) give up the idea that Lent is for fixing addictions.

1 Anthony Giddens & Pierson, Christopher, Conversations with Anthony Giddens: Making Sense of Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 129.

2I mean here the psychological and sociological dimensions of addiction as opposed to chemical dependency which is certainly present before the 19th Century.

3Giddens, 133.

4Giddens, 134.

5Giddens, 128.