Lent is a time of year where every Christian renews his or her commitment to living life as a disciple of Jesus and member of His Mystical Body. Through the Sacred Liturgy and as one body we enter more deeply into the reality of the death of Jesus that we may participate fully in the joy of His resurrection through the Easter Celebration. The path of a Christian includes both Good Friday and Easter Sunday, it is the Gospel of God, which Jesus proclaimed in Galilee. We live in the time of fulfillment, the Kingdom of God is at hand, and our response is to “Repent and Believe”. The Christian life is a life of both repentance and faith, not simply one or the other. And we know that to enter into the faith of the Church we must go by the way of the Baptist, we must repent of our sins, we must be converted, we must make our ways align with God’s holy will.
Lent, then, is the perfect time to confront and begin the path of overcoming an addiction. It makes sense because at the beginning of Lent people usually try to give things up. Maybe it’s social media checking. Or chocolate. Or eating out. Maybe it is time to make another attempt staying off of the bottle, or finally breaking free of pornography.
Although our efforts to give certain things up this time of year can often not bear much fruit in the long run, the intuition is correct, that Lent is a time where we examine our lives and root out that which contradicts Christian faith, hope, and love. In the Church sometimes this process is called mortification because it includes dying to the old self, our idols, and disordered desires, so that we may truly experience and live from our baptismal rebirth in Christ (which, by the way, is renewed at the Easter Vigil Mass when we renew our baptismal promises).
Lent is a time to confront our addictions, those harmful things we are enslaved to. Lent is a time to get honest, to get right with God. This traditionally includes participating in the Sacrament of Reconciliation but is not limited to it. In fact, in the case of addiction, we are going to be required to do a lot of work outside of the confessional. What I mean is that we must learn to act such that our lives evermore correspond to the grace that is offered to us in the Sacraments, thereby realizing the dignity of our Christian vocation.
In my favorite act of contrition, I promise to sin no more, do penance, and to amend my life. This means I have some work to do when it comes to an addiction. Penance involves not merely the penance that is given by the priest but the entire path of conversion. In the Scriptures the Greek term for this is metanoia, which involves a radical change of the interior of the person from evil to good, from doubt to faith, being lost to being found in God, the Holy Trinity.
Further still, amends must be made. Our addictions harm others, often gravely. We must make concrete amends, as well as living amends, through demonstrating a new way of life. Have we approached the altar with anger and hatred in our heart for another person or group of people? Have we harmed someone? Do we need to forgive a harm against us? If we are truly living a life of conversion and reconciliation we will see this work as central to our life and our relationship to Christ and the Church. Christians are a penitential people by vocation, i.e. a people of ongoing conversion to Christ. We are a people of reconciliation, of forgiveness and of amends.
We likely will intuitively know what our primary addiction is. It is the thing we keep swearing off but then doing again. It is the thing that we keep promising ourselves, others, and God we won’t do again, but end up doing it anyway. Some of us hide ours from others. It is the thing we often do when we think nobody is looking. It is related to those behaviors that are often focused on self in an unhealthy way and may be viewed by others and selfish and even destructive for us. And it is the thing that most keeps us from loving God and others – both those closest to us and those we perceive as our enemy.
We may have an idea of what our primary addiction is but our work isn’t quite done yet. Recognizing it we might be tempted to say, “I’m done!” and swear it off. Apart from a miracle, this doesn’t typically work well.
Perhaps you may respond with gambling as the primary addiction you want to focus on. So you swear off gambling. Then what happens? Well, if you are addicted to it you are very likely to relapse insofar as your attempts to quit are not related to significant changes in perception and growth in the theological virtues.
To do this we need to consider what a gambling addiction is, for instance, on a deeper level. On a spiritual level, what is going on with gambling all the time? First of all, there is a lack of trust in God’s Providence, so a need to grow in a sense of Christian faith that leads us to trust God more. There also may be a lack of patient endurance of circumstances that are less than ideal: clinging to a fantasy of what could be and not learning to patiently abide in the reality that is gifted to us from God. There also may be some despair and a lack of hope, and a need to grow in Christian hope, placing hope in Christ, rather than the World. Perhaps we are not suffering well. Everybody experiences suffering, but do we know how to suffer well? We may have yet to grow in a sense of Christian faith that leads us to find in suffering a path to God.
On the moral level, there may be an avoidant fear of financial responsibility. Have we been avoiding obligations out of fear? Perhaps we have failed to meet financial obligations in the past and we have a false belief that we won’t be able to meet them in the future. The best way to become courageous in respect to these obligations is to one at a time begin to respond to them positively. To grow in the virtue of courage in respect financial obligation is to practice acts of courage by meeting these obligations one at a time.
It should be clear by now that simply avoiding the problem behavior of gambling, over time, would fail if we didn’t address the underlying forces that led to us to act out our fear, lack of faith, impatience, and perhaps even greed, for instance, through gambling. If we were able to quit gambling cold turkey we would likely act out those underlying forces and cardinal sins in another way, apart from actual spiritual and moral growth.
Why do we so often fail to grow in freedom from the things that enslave us through our Lenten observance? Because the chocolate, the gambling, the Facebook, the pornography, the overeating, the alcohol, all these things are outside of us. When we haven’t addressed what is really going on our addiction will either creep back in, or come roaring back.
Another example for our times: pornography. It is common for a person to blame this problem on the porn. But this doesn’t do a lot of good without recognizing that it is rooted in the cardinal sin of lust taking place in the movement of the heart. The pornography use is a manifestation of a lack of chastity, a lack of mortification, a lack of faith. But most of all it is a manifestation of the cardinal sin of lust. Pornography fuels a lust addiction like gasoline on a flame.
What is lust? Most deeply it seems related to a wrong perception that we can and ought to use our sexual nature in a way that reduces others and ourselves to objects for use. It is also rooted in an attitude that lacks gratitude for the grace of God and the goodness of the present moment: it is a flight into a counterfeit reality, a rejection of the God given one. Taking the pornography away isn’t enough, it can definitely help to remove the near occasion but this doesn’t address the enslavement to lust as such. Nor does it address the habit of objectification of persons in other areas of life too. Becoming free from an addiction so deeply rooted takes a lot of hard work and the rest of one’s life, unto death. Chastity is a practice, but as Christians, we should be honest with ourselves if we are not progressing in chastity. We must ask ourselves, why?
We must remember the words of our Lord, every harmful or destructive action that we take begins with a thought that is borne from our heart, “from the heart comes forth evil thoughts… these are the things that defile a man”(Mt. 5:17). It is our innermost heart that must be purified and there is no shortcut to this, it is a narrow path that leads to life, but the yoke of Jesus is easy and the burden is light – especially compared with the yoke and burden of the Enemy (i.e. the fallen World, the concupiscent flesh, and Satan).
An addiction presents an opportunity for spiritual growth, for growing in faith, hope, and love, for growing closer to Jesus, Mary, Joseph, all the Angels, and Saints. We need not be afraid, but we are invited to repent of it and through it be converted to the heart of Christ. Temptation and trial are opportunities to grow, to become more human, and to become closer to God and neighbor.
Below is an outline of a prayerful exercise whereby we can begin the work of overcoming an addiction:
- What is my primary addiction right now? i.e. what behavior, or sin, is presently most undermining my capacity to love God and neighbor with spiritual freedom? Remember: It often manifests as a behavior but the behavior isn’t the entire story.
- What attitudes and interior qualities are associated with this behavior? 1) towards God? 2) towards others? and 3) towards self? To discover the attitude and interior quality be attentive to the emotional and interior disposition prior to the time the relapse takes place. Is there impatience? Feeling entitled to resentment or anger? Other senses of entitlement? Selfishness? Fear and stress? Pain and grief? etc..
Now a very important part of this exercise: look deeply at the level of the heart. Where are you in relationship to Jesus in your heart leading up to the relapse and during it? Where is God? Has He left, or did you leave Him? Ask if you see faith in that depth of your heart where you went back to the addiction. Ask if you see Christian hope. What is your experience of the love of God, and neighbor?
- With a better understanding of the spiritual, moral, and emotional dimensions of the relapse, note some of the things you need to look out for as warning signs, and what you can do to overcome them. For instance, if you are feeling isolated, making a phone call or reaching out. If you were lacking faith, reading the Scriptures or the Catechism. If you were burdened by guilt, the Sacrament of Reconciliation. If you were procrastinating, practice diligence. Etc., etc..
- You may notice that the qualities we need to stay away from a harmful relapse are very diminished prior to the relapse, perhaps because of stress, worldliness, or other challenges that have left us “on our own” strength.
Most importantly, don’t expect that a Lenten season is enough time to “get over” your addiction. It doesn’t work that way and Lent shouldn’t be treated that way. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have a firm commitment to forgo that which is harmful to us, we need to have this. We need to be willing to go to any (moral) length, but this willingness is going to demand action, particularly actions that are new or uncomfortable for us at first.
Lent is a time to get honest, to confront our demons, and to engage anew the process of overcoming them through faith – classically expressed through fasting (i.e. mortification), prayer, and almsgiving (or generosity). An addiction reveals a path whereby we are invited to conversion to Christ, and even for those for whom a conversion comes suddenly, like St. Paul, we can still expect to have a thorn in our side to help us grow in humility.
That doesn’t mean that we cannot become progressively free from an addiction, we can, but it is a long-term goal that we commit to one day at a time, and that we won’t be able to do alone. Healing necessarily involves humility, thus we must be willing to be vulnerable and reach out with a safe person and admit where we need help in our lives. This may be a trusted friend at church, a clergyman, or a doctor, for instance. It is best to seek out those who have some experience helping people overcome the particular addiction we have or who can point us in the right direction. We will need concrete practical support from others who have gone the way we desire to go.
Then we will see that we are not alone, and then before we know it we will see that we are truly living out the act of contrition we made when we promised to sin no more, to do penance, and to amend our lives. We will be living out the true purpose of Lent, which is to evermore conform ourselves to Christ, whose life is in us.
Let us remember…
“One does not live on bread alone,
but on every word that comes forth
from the mouth of God” (Mt. 4:4).
If you are interested in reading an article I wrote for the Diocese of Juneau when working in ministry there about specific Catholic involvement in the addiction recovery movement click here.