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Of Incense & Instagram (Or, Comparing the Medieval’s Lent to Our Own)

The Middle Ages is too often made the whipping boy of contemporary skepticism. We post-moderns hear all the time about how superstitious, rigid, prudish and pious the medievals were, and I believe it is because we like ignoring how silly, inconsistent, picky and priggish we are. In any event, one of the many complaints often lodged against the medievals was that they were far too pietistic when it came to celebrating their religion: too many people passing out during the fasts, too much wine at the feasts, lengthy liturgies, overly-solemn silences, and (strange as the criticism may sound) far too much incense. It is tempting to take a look at March Madness with the same sort of skeptical snobbishness (too many charts! too many teams! too much time watching Doritos ads! etc.), but I think the more constructive comparison is to ask “Well, contemporary society, how do you propose we celebrate Holy Week? What sort of cultural institutions would you set up to celebrate (as you would put it) the rebirth of the year and Spring Resurrection?” I expect no direct reply to this query, since secular skepticism seems hardly interested in answering questions of any sort, but I find an answer by observing how people act. Most members of our culture still self-identify as “Christian.” Let us see what lived-answer our actions give.

Answer 1: Shopping (Instead of Almsgiving).
I know that the economy is only slowly getting back on its feet, but how is it that we always are able to find an excuse to buy that new trinket that we like, yet are unable to dig deep enough to help a suffering person? A sale price or coupon for a new spring outfit can get a twenty out of our wallet. Why can’t the face of the poor inspire us to do the same? The medievals might not have been effective community organizers or been able to benefit large social services, but at least they had a sense for seeing God in the eyes of the poor. We don’t even see the eyes of the poor, much less any other part of them. Our ads and commercials keep out attention fixed on the rich, as if paying them for goods and services can really lead to human development. Again, the medievals might have been overly dour or dramatic when emphasizing almsgiving, but they were much more logical than we are about spending.


He seems cool and all, but would going through fasting and exposure just to hear him speak!?

Answer 2: Entertainment (Instead of Fasting).Last night, Cosmos‘ very own Neil deGrasse Tyson gave a speech at Tulane University, down the street from my house. People lined up in a tornado-producing thunderstorm just to have a chance to stand out in the rain in the back of the over-flowing auditorium to hear him speak. They went through all sorts of bodily pains and mortifications to hear this prophet of the heavens spout the same facts that his audience had heard already for free on PBS. I have nothing against Dr. Tyson. Apparently he gave a talk four years ago in the same auditorium and drew a crowd of about a dozen. The only difference between now and then, as far as I can gather, is that he wasn’t a featured TV star back then.

I use this small example to illustrate a point: people are still willing to go through pain and self-deprivation. Fasting and detachment are never far from the human experience. The question is not “will we fast?” The question is “what do we fast in the name of?” The answer yesterday was “entertainment disguised as education.” Again, I have no qualms with Dr. Tyson. He is an interesting speaker. Yet, his presentation last night contained nothing ground breaking or innovative in the world of astrophysics. His audience could have found all the same answers by reading scholarly articles or, heck, picking up a high school cosmology text.
I use this one small case, witnessed with my own eyes 12 hours ago, to illustrate a point. The medievals fasted and endured pains with the goal of drawing closer to God (whether they actually did draw closer to him is another question). Post-moderns endure the same sufferings to draw closer to a human simply because they saw him on TV (whether they actually did draw closer to him is an easier question to answer: they did not).


Answer 3: Technology (Instead of Prayer)
Why do we not pray? Because we have a prayer simulator that we charge every night. Our computers and seemingly-smart phones have, for many of us, replaced real communication. We do not commune with others at the table because we are checking Instagram. We do not commune with God at the Lord’s Table because we wish we were checking Instagram. How easily we miss the Lord’s instant gift of self because we want to post something, download something or (digitally) chat with someone! How often we fail to even chat with those right in front of us because we are “chatting!” My goodness me, this situation is just too absurd!
I’m tired of hearing the argument “the ancients wasted their time in prayer” from a culture that wastes it’s time on Facebook.
But, to be honest, I am just tired of most everything these days. This last leg of the Lenten race always takes it toll. Thus, maybe this all has come across as nothing more than a disjointed rant. Even if it hasn’t, my words probably have not been “inspirational” or “inviting.” Well, there will be more than enough time for those two things after the next two days. As for now, I think it is good to make one last self-assessment before Lent is over. Yes, self-assessment, because, of course, everything I wrote above was as much directed at me as it was at anyone else.

About Daniel Lacourrege

Daniel Lacourrege is a 20-something year old theologian living in the Archdiocese of New Orleans. It is the best place in the world to be a 20-something. It is the third best place in the world to be a Catholic (Rome & Jerusalem claiming first & second).
His life has become one adventure right after another. Most of them start in a classroom or library, but very few of them finish there. He likes most things, but usually must be in the mood for them. The only thing he is never in the mood for is traffic.
If you feel so moved, you may email him at

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