Making sense of Lent in economic turmoil

By  Peter Kavanagh, Catholic Register Special
  • March 1, 2009
{mosimage}Lent is back big time and in a wholly unexpected manner. There is an odd, though understandable, confluence of pop culture, economic trends and the liturgical calendar this year that makes the essence of the Lenten season appropriate to Christians and non-Christians.

In the theatres Confessions of a Shop-a-holic (the film treatment of the Chick-Lit book whose title says it all) and The International (the thriller about a truly killer bank) each speak in their own way to a mood that has swept the world: true discomfort at unfettered greed at the personal and corporate level. Combine the movies with mounting job losses and continual admonitions that everything is just going to get worse and some of us could be forgiven for concluding that Lent, a time of abstinence, sacrifice and reflection, began some time ago.

But Lent is supposed to be about more than things happening to you, it is about reflecting on things one should and shouldn’t do. This truly does require more than just a knee-jerk decision to stop consuming.

It has been just over seven months since Benedict XVI advised delegates to World Youth Day in Australia that “insatiable consumption” was scarring the planet and corrupting us all. And while retreating from consumption, saving our money and postponing if not abandoning purchasing might seem both a rational and self-interested way of minimizing our personal pain from the economic turmoil while paying heed to His Holiness’ admonition and getting into a Lenten mood, we might take a moment to ponder the Pope’s recent comments on the true task of confronting the economic crisis, that is developing  “a new synthesis between the common good and the market, between capital and labour.” Stressing the importance of work he went on to pose that most difficult of quandaries, requiring “a free and responsible effort from everyone, that is, it is necessary to overcome particular interests… to confront difficulties together and united.”

John Maynard Keynes, the economist closest to a groundswell drafting for secular sainthood and the current embodiment of conventional wisdom on wise thoughts for making it through a depression, once noted the importance of the “paradox of thrift.” It works this way: what might be exactly the right thing for you the individual could be exactly the wrong thing for society as a whole. It is an observation worth meditating upon as we contemplate Lent, abstinence, the meaning of sacrifice and the nature of humanity.

The moral wisdom of the Pope and the economic wisdom of one of the giants of economic theory should give us all pause. Are there ways and means to bring solace and opportunity to the impoverished, unemployed and desperate victims of the economic malaise while also allowing us to engage with the difference between economic justice and sustainability and mindless and insatiable consumption? We know one thing for sure: the advice of politicians seems too much oriented to the immediate problem and too little directed at the larger more fundamental questions.

But we might ask a supplementary question. How much are we to blame for the political impulse to seek the quick fix? How often do we judge the wisdom of the day on what it means for us? How often do we insist that they fix problems better solved within? How insistent are they that they bring the bad guys to justice as if all the economic problems of the moment are somehow the responsibility of others?

As a child Lent was too much a matter of minor sacrifices: candy and TV were the most common among my age group. I suspected then and I know now those throw-a-way deprivations of a limited duration were in many respects too easy. They didn’t demand sufficient contemplation. Scaling back my budget today has an equivalent feel. Lent is both too short and too long. Too long simply because if all of us Christians stop spending for a month and a half, whatever impact stimulus measures might have will be lost. Too short because 40 days is insufficient to really think through issues that need introspection, clarity, wisdom and true guidance.

(Kavanagh is a Senior Producer for CBC Radio.)

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