A Catholic perspective on the world and all the good things therein, especially books and food. Literature cum chocolate is the order of the day at The Crockery.

Location: A Collegetown, Undisclosed Location, United States

No longer a graduate student, Teresa is now a professional know-it-all.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Return of the Inevitable Ghost Entry

I had promised to return to the subject of the nature of ghosts. This is a weighty question. There are several possible explanations for hauntings and ghost sightings. I'll list a few just to make it clear that I'm trying not to ignore any possibilities:

First, there are the . . .

Natural explanations

1) Ghost sightings and apparitions are psychological events of some nature. Individuals don't actually encounter ghosts; rather, their brains play tricks on them. This need not mean that the people who see ghosts are "crazy," as stress, disease, or some temporary condition may cause the event. In any event, in this explanation, ghosts are "more gravy than grave," as Ebeneezer Scrooge put it.

2) Haunting events may be caused by "natural causes," such as electricity (St. Elmo's Fire), houses shifting, or magnetic phenomena. Some of these may be phenomena which sciencists do not yet fully understand, which explains why some hauntings seem inexplicable.

3) Hauntings aren't mysterious phenomena at all. Rather, what happens is that a series of unconnected events becomes connected by a central haunting narrative. In other words, once you have a ghost story, anything becomes a sign of the ghost. Objects appear to be moved, pictures fall off the walls, and people see things out of the corner of their eyes. In reality, each one of these events has a perfectly natural and normal explanation, but they become bound together in a central overarching narrative. If the house creaks in the night, it's a ghost. If you wake up a dream feeling as if someone were watching you, it's a ghost. If you absent mindedly put your keys in the wrong place, a ghost must have moved them.

Though I boldly admit that I have not done any statistical research on the subject, I personally suspect that most "hauntings" are of Category 3. I would guess that most "ghosts" are just stories which take on an explanatory power. Every new unusual event simply adds to the story, so ghost stories, once started rolling, have the potential to snowball. And, of course, such stories might be started by a "haunting" of Category 1 or 2 type. One day, when she's working in the library, Jane Doe has a hallucination in which she sees a woman in white, and she tells everyone she knows. (Category 1 haunting.) As a result, the next time John Smith loses his notebook in the library, he blames it on the "woman in white." He tells everyone he knows, and the story goes from there- now you have a Category 3 haunting.

Still, there are plenty of people who report experiences which they claim don't fit into any of the above categories. Such people may be misunderstanding whatever events took place -they may be claiming that they saw something which was really caused by the misfiring of a synapse, as the saying goes- but for those of us who aren't materialists, there's at least the possibility that what some people experience when they encounter a haunting is really supernatural.

Spiritual/Paranormal Explanations

1) "Ghosts" are actually demons. They are not human at all, though they may look or claim to be human, and they are always evil. It might be protested that this doesn't seem to account for the way some ghosts behave. However, Christian tradition says that demons are highly deceptive. They might very well choose to act in ways which wouldn't seem demonic. 1 John 4:1-3 gives directions for "testing the spirits" to determine which are from God, but this doesn't seem to be designed to deal with ghosts. Demonologists suggest various ways of determining whether a given spirit is a demon, but of course, this may still assume that there are spirits which aren't demons.

2) Ghosts are neither humans nor demons but something else entirely. In this case they might not always be evil. They might just be "spirits" of some sort which aren't recognized by Christian cosmologies. This category seems to me to be the least helpful to those trying to understand ghosts from a Christian perspective, so that's all I'll say about it.

3) Ghosts are the souls of the dead which, for some reason or another, are roaming earth. In other words, Joe Bob, rather than being in Heaven or Hell, is for some reason haunting his old bungalow. Theologically, this may seem problematic. It seems to contradict the statement that "man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment" (Hebrews 9:27), which says nothing about people lingering around on earth to scare other people. Given the Christian belief in a judgment followed by punishment, or reward (with a time of refinement coming before the reward in some views, of course) it might seem that there's no room for ghosts. But a surprising number of Catholic writers have actually given some thought to this issue, and in Part III of this series, I'll look at some of the different explanations suggested for why human spirits might be wandering the earth.

4) Ghost are not actually souls, but are some other kind of spiritual/psychic remnant left after people die. In other words, ghosts aren't people, but they are caused by people. Joe Bob may actually be in Heaven, but he somehow left an imprint of himself on the world, and under certain conditions, people may actually encounter this imprint.

The category I'm most interested in here is # 4. I don't believe I've encountered any Christian endorsements of this view of ghosts, but it makes sense to me. Since we believe in a supernatural as well as a natural world, why shouldn't we believe that people might sometimes leave supernatural "impressions" on the physical world? This would explain why people who have suffered strongly, especially victims of accidents and murders, often become ghosts. Their strong emotions have left a strong imprint on the world.

Arguably, Category 4 ghosts should make good sense to Catholics, since Catholicism has a sacramental view of the world. We believe that relics may serve as symbols of the piety of the saints with which they're connected. They are such strong symbols that God may choose to work miracles through relics, as He did in the case of third-class relics connected to the apostle Paul (See Acts 19:11-12). One might ask: if objects connected to a holy person can so strongly symbolize holiness that miracles occur around them, why should we assume that this kind of connection is limited to holiness? What if phsyical objects could be strongly connected with human emotions, with repetitive actions, or with crises? In this case, "miracles" of another sort might occur around objects or places associated with strong emotional/spiritual reactions, whether for good or for bad.

All of this may sound flaky at best and heretical at worst, I know. It's not an idea I'm committed to. In fact, I'm not really committed to the idea that ghosts are anything but natural phenomena misinterpreted- but I like to speculate. Speculation is fun. I like to speculare that some hauntings may not be "natural." And I like to speculate that at least some of those hauntings are caused by neither demons nor human spirits, but "imprints" or "traces" which are somehow left behind after death. If this is the case, it makes a difference in how a haunting is approached, because these "ghosts" don't need to be exorcised out of a building or to be helped to find resolution. They don't need anything because "they" -the human spirits ultimately behind the hauntings- aren't really there anymore. There's no personality to threaten or cajole. All we are seeing is a supernatural shadow.

Perhaps, finally, that's why I like the idea of ghosts being caused by supernatural shadows: such ghosts can't hurt us, and don't need our help, so we don't need to worry about them. They're just there as a testimony to someone's life, whether joyful or painful. Their only impact on us to make the substance of creepy stories. And don't we all need a good ghost story now and then?

Is the Reformation Over?

From a conservative Catholic perspective, the answer to the question above is obvious: no, the Reformation isn't over. The Reformation won't be over until all of Christendom is united in one visible body. A Post-Reformation Church might be composed of different Churches with their own unique disciplines and worship styles, but all these Churches would, like the various members of the Catholic Communion today, be united in their diversity through a central college of bishops, among whom the Bishop of Rome would be, at least, "first among equals." (Well, okay, that's my dream for church unity. You might have another one!)

Not surprisingly, given the above vision, Mark Noll and Caroline Nystrom see ecclesiology as the largest remaining barrier to Catholic-Evangelical unity. Their book Is the Reformation Over? suggests that if we could get Catholics and Evangelicals to agree on what the Church is and what it does, the Reformation might be over. But as they point out, it take considerable humility on both sides and a great deal of change of heart and mind to achieve this point. It may not be possible in the foreseeable future. If it happens, it will be a miracle, a gift from God.

But Noll and Nystrom also suggest that there are some ways in which the Reformation is over. In what might be the book's most controversial paragraph, they claim that:

. . . on the substance of what is actually taught about God's saving work in the world, if not always on the exact terminology used to describe that saving work, many evangelicals and Catholics believe something close to the same thing. If it is true, as once was repeated frequently by Protestants concious of their anchorage in Martin Luther or John Calvin that iustificatio articulus stantis vel cadentis ecclesiae (justification is the article on which the church stands or falls), then the Reformation is over. (232)

Whether or not readers agree with this assessment of the justification issue probably determines whether or not readers liked Noll and Nystrom's assessment of Catholic-Evangelical relations. There are, apparently, plenty of Evangelical critics of the book who feel Noll and Nystrom have compromised the Gospel. There may be Catholic readers who think they have white-washed the differences in soteriology. Personally, I think they are substantially correct about the level of agreement on the basic issue of how we are saved- but I think that there are some key phrases that need to be highlighted.

First of all, when we talk about what is "actually taught," we mean in official catechisms and confessions, not what is taught in RE, CCD, or Sunday School classes. What is officially taught by a denomination does not, sadly, always correspond to what is actually believed by large numbers of its members. (Though I have in mind the flagrant failure of Catholic education when I say this, I don't mean to imply that the problems are one-sided. I rather suspect that they are not.)

Secondly, the point about using different languages is a vital point which must not be forgotten. No matter how much they agree, Catholics and Evangelicals just don't talk about or -I would argue- even think about salvation in the same terms. Catholics today often talk and think about justification in terms of adoption or in terms of a sharing of life in Christ. We use organic metaphors drawn from Johannine literature or the homely metaphors of the Synoptic Gospels more often than the courtroom language of Paul. And really, the fact that Bible includes the Gospels as well as the writings of Paul ought to have clued us all in to the fact that there is no one reigning model of justification in the New Testament. Despite that, the issue of forensic metaphors versus organic or familial metaphors may be one of the largest barriers to discussions on justification. Perhaps part of the problem is that we forget that these are metaphors for salvation, not detailed, scientifically accurate descriptions of what happens when we are saved.

Even if Noll and Nystrom are right about the degree of agreement on justification, this agreement is far from universal. Before we tackle the "next step" of talking about what the Church is, we may have to do some extra work to disseminate the results of recent ecumenical dialogue on the subject of salvation. Noll and Nystrom's book, though it is not focused only on this issue, may be a step in that direction. As such, I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Advice to Ghost Hunters (The Inevitable Ghost Entry, Part I)

When I was younger, I went through a phase of being very interested in ghosts. I grew up in the years when middle-school or elementary school students were ordering Alvin Shwartz's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark from Weekly Reader, and I was no exception. Being a nerd, however, I actually found the "Notes" section at the back of the book to be of more interest than many of the stories. The stories scared me, but the notes -which described the folk backgrounds of these stories, their history, their variations- fascinated me. (No doubt this should have been one of my early clues that I was doomed to a life in academia, but somehow I missed it.)

Even today, though I like a good scary movie or novel, I tend to prefer "real" ghost stories to fictional ones. There's something fascinating to me about the way stories are passed down, how they are changed, how the core of them remains the same. (For similar reasons, I love to browse the old urban legends at Snopes, learning the background of stories I'd heard years ago. Try it sometime.) I would rather read a book of folklore on ghosts than a horror novel. And, though I am skeptical about people who say they've seen a ghost, in the concrete I believe it's possible that some ghost sightings really have been supernatural in origin . . .

. . . which provokes the question: just how does that work theologically? This seems to be a subject of considerable interest even to good, solid, feet-on-the-ground Christians. At times on Catholic message boards or in Catholic blogs, the question "what does the Catholic Church say about ghosts?" I have read some of these discussions with great interest. This entry may be considered my prerequisite addition to the great ghost discussion, but I am not going to spend a lot of time trying to answer the question above. As far as I can tell, the answer is "The Catholic Church doesn't say anything about ghosts, but we do believe in demons, angels, and the existence of souls after death." Appearances by "ghosts," therefore, if they are truly supernatural in origin, could be any of the spirits mentioned above: demons, angels, or the souls of the dead.
Or they could, conceivably, be something else entirely that hasn't been revealed to us in Scripture. (More on this in a future entry- I promise!)

I will simply take it as a given that it is possible for people to encounter spiritual forces, whether human and inhuman. And I'm going to give those who, like me, are interested in ghosts, a simple piece of advice: don't go ghost hunting. Or rather, don't go spend the night in the "haunted room" of a haunted house, even if it's in a bed and breakfast that serves up a good breakfast. Or -to be even more precise- if you ARE going to stay in a haunted bed and breakfast, don't read up on demonic possession and obsession the day before. Specifically, don't read Gerald Brittle's
The Demonologist, which is essentially an interview with Catholic demonologist and ghost chasers Ed and Lorraine Warren.

I don't know if Ed and Lorraine are quakes, flakes, or on the level. Their theology at times does seem to have been overly influenced by ideas and practices drawn from secular or even New Age parapsychology- but then they tend to have a good explanation for why X, which doesn't seem to be orthodox, really does work within Christianity. Their angelology and demonology is solidly Augustinian. It may simply be that they use phrases such as "positive energy" instead of "holiness" simply because they are talking the lingo of the profession. It doesn't seem to me that one can simply dismiss the book as being not from a Christian perspective (as one Amazon reviewer did), but I don't really know how solid the Warrens are, either in the accuracy of their observations, the veracity of their stories, or the orthodoxy of their theology.

Regardless of their theological eccentricities, the Warrens' advice seems good: don't conduct seances. If you see a spirit, don't try to communicate unless absolutely necessary, even if it seems beautiful or good. Don't use Ouija boards or automatic writing. Don't practice magic, even if it's "just for fun." If your house seems haunted or you think you are under demonic attack, get religion (make sure everyone in the house is baptized; go to church every week; call your priest, minister, or religious official to bless your home). In short, though their own personal views may be questionable, the advice they offer to others seems safe.

[Edited to add: It's been brought to my attention that the Warrens may have continued to pass on false information about the Amityville hoax and some of the people involved. (There are differing perspectives on the issue, and I am not informed enough to judge.) This does seriously call into question their creditability. I had assumed that they were merely taken in by the hoax, but other people maintain that they fabricated evidence in their books. If true, that's too bad, as I would have liked to read them as being truthful. Though this doesn't change the entertainment value of their work, it may mean that the works should be read as if they were fiction.]

While I may have lingering questions about the Warrens' theology, I can wholeheartedly say that their stories are freakin' scary, and to someone with a Judeo-Christian worldview, many of them sound plausible. Granted, some of them sound crazy. ("Annabelle" = Bride of Chucky?) But is it any crazier than dry bones being revived in the desert, or pigs being possessed by demons? Do Lorraine's self-proclaimed abilities seem significantly different from the gifts of prophecy and discernment of spirits in the Bible? (I suppose to spiritual gift successionists, they do. Well, sorry, but I'm not talking to y'all this time.)

Still, I can't recommend the Warrens as reliable authorities on demonic possession or haunting, because their printed works seem so theatrical at times. It's not so much that I'm accusing them of active dishonesty, as of exaggeration or hyperbole. In short, I wonder if their reliability has been compromised by their desire to tell a good story. I do, however, recommend this book both as entertainment (it really is better than Stephen King, in my opinion) and as a starting place for questions about ghosts, hauntings, and demons. Those specifically interested in ghost hunting may also be interested in the webpages of Jeff Messenger and David Considine. These individuals approach the paranormal from a Christian perspective. (I cannot vouch for these authors' faith or orthodoxy, of course. [Edited to add- but Considine has been recognized by the Catholic Church as a lay demonologist.])

The Warrens have a number of other books about demons and ghosts, but judging from the Amazon reviews, The Demonologist is the pick of the litter as far as entertainment value. Just don't read the book the day before you stay in a "haunted" house, if you plan on sleeping that night. That's my second piece of advice to amateur ghost hunters. The first, and most important piece of advice -picked up from the Warrens and Messenger- is to pray. If God is for us, who can be against?

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Attack of the Grave Reasons!

There's an ongoing discussion of Natural Family Planning over at Ales Rarus. The discussion is interesting, though at times confusing, I think because the author of the series sees several questions bound together in ways other people don't. To him, the question of whether NFP is a form of contraception is related to the question of what constitutes grave/serious/just reasons to avoid conception. To many of his readers (including myself), these seem like distinct questions which deserve individual treatment. The combox discussions reflect that confusion, but they also bring up a lot of interesting subpoints and concerns. It's definitely a series worth reading.

I'll be honest, though: there's part of me that feels that the arguments which conservative Catholics get into over the "how common are just reasons?" question are a waste of time. I think we ought to be more concerned about the huge percentage of Catholics who don't follow their Church's teaching on this matter. Once we get everyone to agree to use only NFP rather than artificial methods of birth control, then we can talk more about when it should be used. As it is, I worry that acrimonious debates about whether X constitutes a serious reason to avoid may actually be scandalous: they may scare away those who aren't already committed to Catholic sexual ethics, because they make those ethics seems more severe than they really are.

But, having said that, I understand that there is small group of people who are faithful to Catholic teaching on marital sexuality but have legitimate concerns about the use and abuse of Natural Family Planning. As always, I recommend that those people start by reading some of Christopher West's work, of course (Christopher West being one of my gurus). One of these days I may do my own entry on NFP, but in the meantime, I've left more than enough comments over at the NFP Investigation series, so you can read my perspective there

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Random thoughts on online apologetics

There was a time when I heavily involved in online Catholic apologetics on some Yahoo Groups. I still do some of this, but I've gotten jaded about the work of Catholic apologists. Part of this is because I fear that apologetics battles may, in Catholics at least (I can't speak for Protestants at all on this issue) ultimately promote a kind of triumphalism that may ultimately hinder Catholic-Protestant relations. Don't mistake this concern for relativism: I'm not saying that there's nothing wrong with believing your church is right and that others are wrong. In fact, I'd say there's something wrong with belonging to a church which you don't believe is the correct or most correct one! I'm just saying that making smug comments about the blindness or irrationalism of those who disagree with you is not a way to make friends or influence people. More importantly, it doesn't demonstrate Christian charity. (And I freely admit that I have been uncharitable in this way.)

But there's a bigger problem with apologetics, or rather with the Catholic-Protestant debating that often makes up the meat of amateur apologist's work. It's that bigger problem that is my concern here, but I want first of all to reaffirm the good work which is being done in the field of internet apologetics. At its best, Catholic apologetics can clear up misconceptions about Catholic doctrine and practice- and boy, do those misconceptions abound! There's still plenty of genuine anti-Catholicism out there, too. (If any who read scoff, I can point my readers to some.) There is real work to be done in the field of Catholic apologetics in showing that Catholicism is not as irrational or unbiblical as it often seems to conservative but inadequately-educated-on-this-subject Protestants. If this work results in nothing more than less animosity and a more accurate understanding of Catholicism, the results are still significant.

I worry, though, that at times apologetics forums and blogs just encourage Christians (both Catholic and Protestant) to view Catholic-Protestant relations as a great debate, a big combat. "Let's duke it out and see who wins!" While I admit that I love a good intellectual fight myself, this no longer seems to me to be a helpful attitude to take to inter-denominational relations, particularly in light of the fact that many of the issues at stake are already under discussion through official channels of the Catholic Church.

Take one example: the issue of justification. I don't know how many times I've seen online arguments between Catholics and Evangelical Protestants on the issue of whether we are saved by faith alone or by works. What is sad and rather stupid about all of this is that considerable consensus on this issue has actually been reached in various ecumenical dialogues. The Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration on Justification is of course the best known one, but Catholics reached points of agreement on issues of salvation with the Anglicans, Baptists, and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC). Agreement is not complete, of course, but it is far more substantial than one would guess from either the Protestant or Catholic apologists, at least the amateur ones. To their credit, professional writers from all sides do tend to be more familiar with these documents, but it seems disturbing to me that armchair apologists aren't aware of ecumenical dialogues which have, in some cases, been going on for decades.

Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising, though. Average church goers don't hear about these agreements. They aren't announced from the pulpit. I can understand why, in a way: I suppose most pastors don't think that cutting-edge-ecumenical-dialogue impact their congregations. Churches tend -reasonably- to focus on the needs of their congregations, not to be worried about what other ecclesial bodies are doing.

But I submit that "average Joe" church goers -whether Catholic, conservative Evangelical, or mainline Protestant- do need to be kept informed of the conclusions of past and on-going ecumenical dialogues. And if "Average Joe" needs to know, there's an even greater obligation for those who like to be involved in Catholic-Protestant debating/ apologetics. There's no need for us to keep reinventing the wheel by hashing out the same issues over and over again when (in some cases) we may find that our churches have already come to a degree of agreement that may surprise us.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

What are You Giving Up?

The subtitle of this post should be "Lent isn't just for Catholics anymore," but I stole that title from the Christianity Today blog, and I figured they might want it back. Lent is indeed not just for Catholics anymore, though I suspect that the majority of evangelical Christians still don't celebrate the season. (However, if you click on the link above, you can find links to several newspaper articles about the spread of Lenten discipline.)

There are differences in how Catholics and Protestants experience Lent, however. The first one I want to mention is a sort of addendum to my previous post. I can't generalize about Protestant culture or Evangelical culture at large, but the Evangelicals I know will often give something up for Lent. They're cool like that. But when I respond to the classic question "What are you giving up for Lent?" by explaining that I am not giving something up, but rather taking on an additional devotion, I sometimes get a surprised look from my Lenten-observing friends. Apparently Lent has become so associated with sacrifice that those new to the practice of Lent may not realize that what is really at stake in Lenten penance is discipline- and discipline can mean doing positive things, rather than negatively giving something up.

I think we Catholics are to blame for this, because we have tended to emphasize the abstention associated with Lent, while sometimes downplaying or ignoring other aspects of the season. What if, instead of complaining about meatless Fridays, we had rejoiced in the blessing of weekly Stations of the Cross? What if, instead of grumbling when we have to turn down a brownie because it's a day of fasting, we showed gratitude for the abundant liturgical riches of this season, such as the distribution of ashes? I can only speak for myself, but I know that I've talked a lot more about being hungry on Good Friday than I have about how incredibly moving the Good Friday services have been to me in the past. Of course, the ideal situation is one in which abstention and fasting themselves are transformed from something to complain about to something about which to glory: not in that we do so much in giving things up, but that God does so much in us through our Lenten penance. As you can probably tell, though, I'm not there yet. Give me time.

The paragraph above nicely brings up the second point of difference between Catholic and Protestant views of Lent. Catholics, with our sacramental worldview, believe that Lenten disciplines can actually DO something to us, if we let them. They can be a means of conversion. They can turn us towards God, if we are open to such conversion. It is not, of course, that giving up X or doing Y is a magic formulate for becoming holy, but that these are means God uses for our sanctification. This is no original idea of mine, by the way: this point appeared in the Ash Wednesday homily my husband and I heard yesterday. I hardly noticed it, but when my husband and I talked about the service afterwards, he pointed out that this is very different from the way most Evangelical Protestants who practice Lent would view Lenten disciplines. In his opinion, most Evangelicals simply wouldn't describe Lenten discipline as actually doing something to us, in words give implied agency or action on the part of the disciplines.

So we receive the same ashes, but we may not think of them as meaning the same thing. We fast, but do we understand the fasting in the same way? I don't know, but I'll say this: I think it's great that other Christians are becoming more attuned to the Church's ancient liturgical practices. (You go, Ancient Future Time!) But I'd like it even more if Christians from different traditions could open up dialogue on the meaning of penance, as well as sharing in its practice.

These Forty Days: Lent Begins

First of all, let me apologize for the title. As a child, I thought and spoke as a child, and I believed that Lent literally lasted a precise forty days, to match the forty days that Jesus was fasting in the desert. Today, I am grown, and I know that "forty days" is an approximation- and yes, apparently Sundays are a part of Lent, despite rumors to the contrary. (See Jimmy Akin's Annual Lent Fight for a round-up of his prior posts on the subject; they make for informative reading even if you think you already know all about Lent.)

This year, the fact that Lent is a little more than forty actual days may work in my favor. What I'm "doing for Lent" is reading the book of Job, one chapter a day. Job is 42 chapters long, and Lent is approximatly 43 1/2 days long. ( I confess, I did not know that until I read
Jimmy's Basic Lent information; I thought Holy Thursday wasn't part of Lent at all.) so that leaves me a tiny margin in case I fall behind in my reading, which I might. But I might not: part of why I chose this discipline is that a chapter a day is very doable. Sadly, I have not yet finished my through-the-Bible-in-a-year, but I hope that by reading a chapter everyday, I can nudge myself back into the practice of daily Scripture reading.

You may ask: "Teresa, aren't you giving up something for Lent?" The answer is yes: I've given up Starbucks. But let me stand up on the soapbox now and say that for me personally, I have found that adding a devotion for the duration of Lent does me more good than giving up something. I know that this is not true for everyone. I've heard of people whose lives were literally changed forever when they used Lent as an opportunity to give up television, cigarettes, or some other daily habit which they found that they really didn't need. I, on the other hand, tend to give up Coke, only to legalistically assert that Pepsi didn't count. Lent would then become my forty days of pretending to be a Pepsi drinker. Or maybe I'd give up coffee, in which case I just drank a lot more tea. Last year, I gave up my message boards except on weekends- and found myself playing Solitaire a lot more often, rather than working or praying more, as I'd hoped I would.

None of these abstentions (read: substitutions) have changed my life in any noticeable lasting way. I don't deny that the disciplines themselves had a good effect on me. I believe that they were good. I just feel that the disciplines of reading a daily chapter of The Introduction to the Devout Life or of praying every day for someone in need who *wasn't* me had more lasting effects. If the goal of Lenten penitential acts is to draw us closer to God and improve our lives in a lasting way, it seems to me that taking on additional devotions may be the "easier" way for some us spiritually lazy types. I'm not saying it's the better way. . . but to me it makes more sense. Many of us are not mentally or spiritually disposed so as to really make the best spiritual use of minor sacrifices. We should, ideally, be seeking to develop a sacrificial mindset, I'm not convinced that giving up chocolate for forty days will best help everyone to do that.

If giving up something for Lent helps you, by all means, do it. But if your Lenten sacrifice never seems to have a lasting effect, try something different. Try giving up a little piece of your time -just 10-20 minutes a day- in order to do something.