The Meat of the Matter

Does God Really Want Our Catholic Guilt?

I ate meat this past Friday. I didn’t mean to; it just happened.

Abstinence malfunction
I was at lunch with a friend at Evergreen, one of my favorite Chinese restaurants in the city, and I ordered orange-flavored chicken. I ate every bite of the perfectly seasoned, perfectly cooked, perfect combination of sweet and spicy meat. I simply forgot it was Lent.

Okay, so I also ate ice cream on Ash Wednesday. I was in a really bad mood.

My first Lent as a Catholic is off to a fantastic start.

Oh hell
The ice cream thing was on purpose. The meat was an accident. I’m not sure which I feel worse about. Or maybe I should feel guilty about the string of expletives that came out of my mouth upon realizing that I’d eaten meat.

The sinful week in review
Thinking about the best chicken ever and the ice cream and the swearing starts the synapses firing, bringing to mind all sorts of other sins:

  • skipping Mass
  • making fun of people
  • drinking too much
  • picking fights with my boyfriend
  • not praying enough
  • using my mother’s emergency credit card for emergencies like going out with my friends or visiting
  • not working hard enough in school
  • etc, etc, etc

Ah, good old Catholic guilt. The more I think about all the terrible things I’ve done since Ash Wednesday (since I’ve been Catholic, since I was born) the worse I feel. Soon I find myself curled into the fetal position thinking about how much I suck.

Season of guilt?
This is a good
thing, right? Lent is all about doing penance and sacrificing, so isn’t more guilt better? At the rate I’m going, I’ll have enough guilt to get me through the next ten Lents.

Besides, in Romans 5:20, Paul says “where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more.” So logically, I should be pretty happy that I’ve screwed up so much lately. The more I screw up, the more penitent I have to be, the more grace I get. Ka-ching! Right?

As Paul says a few verses later, “by no means!”

Guilt vs. penitence

I’m not sure God wants us spending Lent sitting around feeling horrible about ourselves and what we’ve done until the only solution we can see is to eat an entire pint of Ben&Jerry’s watching reruns of The Cosby Show, wishing we were part of that perfect family. That’s guilt.

Penitence is different.

Sure, we’re supposed to reflect on our sin, but when we get bogged down in how terrible we are for sinning, we miss the point. Lent is about turning from sin, offering our guilt to God, and asking Him to forgive and help us. That’s penitence.

It’s about knowing that He loved us enough to sacrifice His Son, and that He still loves us enough that He gave us an entire season each year to help us remember that love.

But I’ve still got a pint of Ben&Jerry’s in my freezer, just in case I forget.