I meant to get this post out yesterday for Ash Wednesday, but it didn't happen. This'll be a shorter post, but I do want to discuss something I think is important, especially considering my last post (which I encourage you to read before this one): how people view fasting, lent, and masturbation.
When I was in high school, by far the most commonly talked about Lenten sacrifice was giving up masturbation. This was sort of the "ultimate" sacrifice, and everyone joked about it (I didn't go to a Catholic school or anything; it just always came up). I can remember these kids who I knew made pacts to quit for the 40 days, etc. A few of them wore bracelets as reminders. I think only a couple succeeded, and a few, I'm pretty sure, lied about succeeding. I imagine that this is still a very popular topic and practice today. At the time, this whole no-masturbation-for-Lent thing annoyed me to no end. I didn't know why, and I wasn't really religious then so I didn't really have anything I could bring up when they talked about it, but it really bugged me. I can think of a few reasons now. One, it made Lent feel like some weird adolescent competition. Sort of just like this childish game that kids can laugh about. It made something that was supposed to be special, divine even, into lockerroom jokes. Two, I was jealous and annoyed that I couldn't do something like that (something I doubt I'd admit at the time). And three, it absolutely misses the point of (and perverts) the Lenten sacrifice. I want to spend the most time on three.
I think this is what Lent means for a number (the majority?) of people: You are supposed to give up something you really like (generally something that's sinful) to show that you care about God (or Jesus or whatever). Most criticisms of Lent come in this form: "So, like, how does that help people though? Wouldn't Jesus want you to help people and not just stop eating ice cream for 40 days; that's stupid!" (Implying that the real Christian experience consists of being selfless to the point of utilitarian absurdity.) In response to this, the person who is participating in Lent says, "but we're supposed to do charity too!" (Never really seriously considering doing charity ever.) Another common criticism: "Aren't you supposed to not do that all the time, so like, why are you not doing it now?" "Because it's Lent!" is usually the response. You can see this view of Lent in something like Mardi Gras, where you're supposed to do all the bad things in one day because you won't be able to do them for like over forty whole days. (I know that Mardi Gras has more honorable roots, and I know that good Catholics avoid depravity; I'm simply referring to what it is now and what it means culturally.) For some people, this actually means fornication or other very immoral things. (I'm sure a teen movie will come out soon about Mardi Gras, where four friends (one of whom is fat and another is nerdy) take a road trip to New Orleans to get laid, and the nerdy one ends up really drunk in a prostitute's hotel room, etc. etc. (Hollywood's calling, one sec)). For anyone who seriously participates in Lent, this is all a big joke, and in many ways, it's mostly just offensive to the sacred season.
I mentioned fasting as it applies to masturbation in my last post. I said that the underlying virtue that allows you to fast is the same virtue that allows you to not masturbate. I want to make sure that this is not taken the wrong way, especially as Lent has started. I'll make it as simple as I can and then elaborate on what I mean: You should not give up masturbation for lent. You should give up masturbation for ever. When we sacrifice for Lent, we are sacrificing a good in place of a higher good: closeness to God. It is to pervert the whole notion of Lent to sacrifice masturbation (an intrinsic wrong) for God. When you fast, you are to give up an intrinsic good (and to make the fast the most meaningful, give up a good that is most integral in sustaining you). I talked about this in my first post on mixed-orientation marriages, where I wrote that the word "sacrifice" is often misused or misunderstood. There, I argued that one does not sacrifice what he already should not do. This is exactly the mistake a person makes when he or she sacrifices masturbation for Lent. But what's the big deal? Isn't it good that a person isn't masturbating for at least 40+ days? This is the big deal: feast is supposed to follow fast. It is to misunderstand the entire season to think it's about just fasting. In fact, I daresay that the feast is more important than the fast. A fast is not forever. A fast is the temporary exception, something that aligns us as we prepare for the infinite. This is what makes Easter so special. Through fasting, you are making your body match your soul, which waits in anxious anticipation for God. As such, when someone "fasts" masturbation for Lent, he is necessarily expecting to masturbate once Lent is over. In fact, this is often explicitly stated by people who attempt the no-masturbation Lent. This perverts the entire Lenten sacrifice into a sort of strange religious sin-delay.
Now, if you've decided to stop masturbating because the Lenten season has started, that's fine. It's as good a time to start as any, but do not misunderstand what you are doing. Know at the end of the fast that you must not feast on your vice; do not even train your body to expect such things. As I implied in the last post, for me the two things coincided: I fasted food and stopped masturbation at the same time. But Lent is not a time to just kick a habit. Yes, what we can gain through fasting is important (this was the whole point of my last post), but Lent is not a self-help season. It is a season to sacrifice a good so that we can better realize and see the higher good. I think this perverse popular view of Lent is actually really destructive to not just Christianity, but to the culture as a whole. It reinforces a standard where fornication, masturbation, etc. are moral norms, where we do something strange or different by practicing chastity. Now, avoiding sexual immorality is very difficult, no doubt (especially today), but it is a minimum moral requirement, not a special temporary exception.