Priest Lets Friend Choose His Sacrifice for Lent

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Father James Martin does not decide what he'll give up for lent; he lets his college roommate pick for him. It started as a bar bet when the two were in college, but is now an important part of Martin's spiritual practice. Martin is a Jesuit priest and author of My Life with the Saints.


You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Today is celebrated as Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras, the end of Carnival. A time when Christians take an opportunity to celebrate one last time before Lent. For the faithful, Lent means forty days of fasting and other kinds of penance. Commentator James Martin is a Roman Catholic priest and this year, as in years past, he didn't know until the last minute what he'd be giving up for Lent.

Father JAMES MARTIN (NPR Commentator): When I was in college, my Jewish roommates used to tell me what to give up for Lent. Many of my friends at the University of Pennsylvania took an avid interest in my Catholicism. Some would join me at Mass on Sundays where I showed them how to bless themselves, when to sit and stand, and most importantly, how not to slam the kneelers. One winter's night as we sat at our favorite bar, the topic of Lent came up. When I told my housemates about the Christian practice of giving things up they observed that selecting your own penitence seemed far too easy.

Wouldn't it be better, my friend Rob said, if someone else told you what to give up? He had a point. During the 40 days of Lent, Christians make scarifies for many reasons, to rid themselves of a nasty habit, to identify more with poor, or to save money for charity. But since those sacrifices are self-imposed, they are often easier than they could be. So when my roommate suggested that they decide my penance, I agreed. It seemed a more challenging spiritual discipline. Besides, I was curious about what they would choose. They deliberated for a few weeks. Some suggestions were rejected out of hand. Giving up beer, for instance, was deemed impossible. Finally on Ash Wednesday my friend Rob was designated to tell me that for the next 40 days I would have to forgo orange soda, which I drank in great quantities as an aid to late night studying.

Since then, for over 20 years my friend Rob has phoned me every Ash Wednesday to assign me a Lenten sacrifice. The sacrifices have grown easier over the years since Rob is running out of things for me to give up. For a few years he favored spices. One Lent I was suppose to avoid anything with oregano. It sounded easy until it dawned on me that pizza was out of the question for six weeks. Having another person choose your sacrifice adds an extra dimension to Lent. Since my penance is not within my control, it feels a little more spiritual. As with far more serious struggles in life, like an illness or the loss of a job, things outside our control are the most difficult to deal with. They are, in traditional Christian theology, crosses that eventually need to be accepted, much as Jesus finally accepted his cross.

When I was dealing with a long illness, I once complained to an older priest that I didn't want that particular cross. He said, well it wouldn't be much of a cross if you wanted it, would it? But Lent isn't simply about sacrifice, it is primarily a time to spiritually prepare oneself for Easter. And this may have less to do with not doing something than with doing something. God would probably be happier, not if I stopped eating candy, but if I did more work on behalf of the poor. Last year I told Rob I was worried that one day he was going to assign something really hard to give up. It was like worrying about God asking me to sacrifice something. Another reason to stay on my good side, said Rob, and on God's good side, too.


James Martin is a Jesuit priest and author of the book My Life with the Saints. His friend Rob called today, a day early, to tell him his Lenten sacrifices. He'll be giving up Popsicles, pumpkin seeds and meatballs.

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