On Lent, Faustus, and the 7 Deadly Sins

Dr. Faustus, Rembrandt etchingDr. Faustus, Rembrandt etching      

Here we are in the midst of Lent with less than a month to go until Easter.  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight describes the season as follows:

After Christmas there came the cold cheer of Lent,
When with fish and plainer fare our flesh we reprove . . .

The poet is giving us the traditional view of Lent: we  are to reprove our flesh by doing something that goes counter to our inclinations.  We tell ourselves that we will give up chocolate or caffeine or that we will lose 10 pounds. Sometimes Lent just seems to be New Year’s resolution, Part II.  After having failed to follow up our good intentions on the first go-round, we take a second stab at it.  And if we fail this time, well, there’s another New Year’s Day nine months away where we can make more resolutions.

This misses the point of Lent.  The purpose of the season is not to flagellate oneself.  In Gawain and the Green Knight, it’s because the culture had problems with the flesh that the Green Knight shows up in the first place, a sign that our natural side requires a bit more respect.  No, the purpose of Lent is to focus on what is really important and to take on some discipline that will help us do that.  Discipline, someone has said, is the art of remembering what we really want.

A Lenten discipline, for instance, may involve getting more sleep or spending more time with our kids or reading nurturing books.

I taught Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus last week and was reminded of why we need such reflective moments.  The legendary story of the man who sells his soul to the devil does not have to interpreted as involving literal hell and actual devils.  Rather, it is a powerful depiction of the hells we create for ourselves when we lose track of what nourishes us.  Although Faustus gets torn apart by devils at the end of the play, he spends much of the rest of the play being metaphorically torn up.  He agonizes a lot and twice entertains thoughts of suicide. Even when he’s winning applause for his conjuring tricks or being entertained by the seven deadly sins, he’s never truly joyful.

Lenten resolutions often involve avoiding one of the seven deadly sins.  We may determine to lose weight (gluttony), take on an exercise regimen (sloth) or stop surfing the internet in search of titillating images (lechery).  We may decide we are going to control our temper (wrath), stop envying other people (envy), give money to charitable causes (greed) or be humble (pride).  All of these are, of course, good things.  But when we add the word “should” to the agenda, and then perhaps invoke the aid of guilt to act as an enforcer, often something deep within us rebels.  We feel the judgmental eye of the church or God or our conscience condemning us.

So here’s a suggestion for this Lenten season.  In tomorrow’s post I will provide the passage where Faustus converses with the seven deadly sins.  Take a look at it and then follow the example of each of them.  In other words, commit each of the sins.

My one stipulation is that, as you sin, take note of how fulfilling you are finding it.  Be clear-eyed in the exercise.  Is it making you happy?  Or, like Faustus, do you experience a sense of emptiness?  Maybe this will help lead you to the true meaning of Lent.  It’s not about beating yourself up.  It’s finding your way to what you really want.

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  1. Barbara
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 5:16 am | Permalink

    Robin, thank you for this! It makes far more sense to me than the gloomy Catholic Lents of my youth or any of the numerous alternatives I’ve heard since.

  2. Robin Bates
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Barbara. I sometimes worry about sounding facile when I talk this way. On the other hand, when I see the contortions that people go through as they wrestle with guilt in following their Lenten discipline, I’m not convinced it brings them closer to God. I think we’ve got to draw on religion to give us the strength to be inner directed in the best sense.

One Trackback

  1. By Mix and Match: Mysticism American Style on March 10, 2010 at 1:17 am

    […] the way Douthat quotes him, it sounds as though Johnson might take exception with my criticism of harsh versions of Lent and the way we sometimes let them twist us into guilty contortions .  My gentler approach may […]


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