It is no accident that we come to self-denial last because I have been struggling with it.
As many of you know, I am in the process of becoming a Third-Order Franciscan. That means I try to live my life in a Franciscan spirit according to a rule that I negotiated with an experienced Franciscan. Self-denial is one of the categories, one of nine, that a Franciscan rule has to address. The other eight categories were no problem. But my Franciscan counselor and I had trouble agreeing on what self-denial should look like in my life.
It began when I sent off a version of what I took to be a decent way of living a life of self-denial. My Franciscan counselor responded that my rule did not really get at what they were looking for. I revised my proposed rule about self-denial. She replied that I seemed to be missing the point. And so it went, back and forth.
At the time, it was kind of a pain. But looking back, I can see that she was right, that I misunderstood what self-denial really is. And because I misunderstood what self-denial is, I didn’t much like it and I wasn’t any good at it.
I took self-denial to mean that I should give up things I enjoyed.
Some of you may have heard an old joke about the Puritans. What is Puritanism? It is the terrible fear that somewhere someone is having a good time. I note in passing that Puritans founded New England, not Georgia!
I was thinking of God as a little bit like those old Puritans. And, in my mind, self-denial was what God’s opposition to fun was supposed to look like in my life. That was how I was approaching self-denial in my proposed Franciscan Rule.
But the Franciscans understand self-denial very differently and much better. They start with the fact that God loves us, that God wants us to enjoy abundant love and life. All Christian practices, including self-denial, are all about opening ourselves up to the love of God.
Franciscans say, “Self-denial asks us to take a hard look at what separates us from the love of God and from others, and to find ways to promote more loving relationships.”
So, my formation counselor kept asking me, as we went back and forth about my rule, what in my life made it harder for me to love? I suspect that Carrie could answer that question better than I, but I didn’t have the nerve to ask her, then or now.
So instead I use an easy example: alcohol. In moderation, alcohol can be a great pleasure. My parents used to have a glass of wine together at the end of the day. For them, wine was a way to express and experience love. There was no reason for them to deny themselves that glass of wine.
But alcohol hinders some people from loving God or neighbor. In the worst cases, alcohol makes it impossible to experience true life or joy. For people in that situation, self-denial means giving up alcohol. But not because God opposes fun. They need to stop drinking because alcohol stands in the way of love.
Alcohol is not my issue. But my formation counselor was clear that we all have issues. We all have habits, behavior patterns, that get between us and God or between us and our brothers and sisters, patterns that prevent us from giving or receiving love.
And one of the great goals of Lent is to identify and root out those habits. That is what Christian self-denial is.
We can go one more step. Self-denial is not only about what we do. Self-denial is about who we are. Here is how the Franciscans say it: “Self-denial is a way for us… to put aside our own limited concept of ‘self’ in order to embrace a more complete self-hood in Christ.”
We typically think of ourselves as individuals, separate from God and everybody else. And that is true in part. But too often we forget our deepest and truest identity. We are beloved children of God, not individuals isolated from God. We are united into one body in Christ, not individuals isolated from our brothers and sisters.
When we work on Christian self-denial, what we are denying is that limited and isolated vision of who we are in favor of a deeper and richer sense of our identity with each other in God.
The ultimate task for all of us is to figure out how we separate and isolate ourselves, and what changes we need to make to experience who we really are in God.
One small thing that can help is to include as part of your daily prayers the prayer attributed to Saint Francis.
“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”
This is a beautiful statement of self-denial at its best, and praying it regularly can help.
And here is an example from my life last week. I got home, after a full work day, and did a little home improvement before supper. (Needless to say, I was unsuccessful.) After we ate, Carrie and I had a minor disagreement. I thought to myself, “If she knew how hard I worked at Church and at home, she would cut me a little slack.” I was forgetting, of course, that she also works hard at her job and at home.
So, I was feeling misunderstood and put upon as I came to my evening prayers. And there were those words: let me not seek to be understood so much as to understand. I was totally busted!
In that moment, Francis’ prayer helped me to do a tiny bit of self-denial, to stop thinking about things from my own selfish and ego-centric position and instead to think about other people in my life. In two seconds of trying to understand things from Carrie’s perspective, I realized that I was being a self-centered jerk.
It took a little time for it all to sink in, for me “to put aside my limited concept of ‘self’ in order to embrace a more complete self-hood in Christ.”
But thanks to that prayer, I was able to experience a little more love and life and joy with Carrie than I could otherwise have done that evening.
As with all Lenten practices, I continue to have plenty of room to grow in self-denial. I suspect that we all do. But I have at least come to see the invitation to self-denial for what it is, an invitation to all of us to experience deeper and fuller life in God. And for that invitation, I give thanks, in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
 Forming the Life of a Franciscan, 38.
 Forming the Life of a Franciscan, 38.