Fr Billy Swan
I remember on one occasion attending a conference where three men spoke about their experience of addiction to alcohol and destructive sexual behaviour. What was very striking was the honesty and courage of the three speakers to face up to their past and to share their stories of how their indulgence almost destroyed them and their families. They were sharing their stories to offer hope and help to those who might be struggling alone.
When we listen to people like this, there is a risk of us feeling righteous and removed from them. In our pride we might think that ‘they are addicts and I’m not’ or ‘this will never happen to me’ or ‘it’s their own fault’. Friends, these people are our brothers and sisters. They are human just like us. We are all addicted to something and we can all become addicts more easily than we think. It just takes a little self-awareness and humility to know this.
On this coming Sunday before Lent begins, we mark what we call ‘Temperance Sunday’. It is a call away from addictions – not to indulge in excess but to practice discipline in our lives with the motive of putting God back in first place. Temperance is about removing our dependence on people and things that can easily replace God himself.
This call to temperance is timely and needed. The moral situation in Ireland has changed dramatically in the last few decades. Many people celebrated the end of what they thought were oppressive rules imposed on people by the Church and religion. A new freedom was being talked about as the moral codes of previous generations were loosened. And so, in the name of that freedom, drink and drugs became more available. With the help of the internet, sexual freedom was introduced with no boundaries or responsibility. The knock-on effect of these cultural developments is that people can become addicted to various behaviours and activities in a way that destroys lives.
The three men I listened to at that conference were examples of people who painfully discovered that instead of their indulgence bringing them freedom, they became slaves to what they were addicted to. These men spoke with great authority of the value of temperance, discipline and fasting to emerge from their slavery and live again in freedom.
God our Father wants us to be free. When he gives us the commandments in Scripture and in the teachings of the Church, he does so to protect our freedom and not to take it away. Temperance has an unpopular image. It is perceived as restrictive, a sort of kill-joy and spoil sport. Nothing could be further from the truth. Temperance brings balance and prevents excess getting a grip. That is why Lent is so important as a time of training, of discipline and sacrifice. It is a time to listen to the wisdom of God’s Word that says: ‘Do not follow your base desires but restrain your appetites’ (Sirach 18:30). Lent is a time for all that Jesus talks about in the Gospel this Sunday – to support one another along the journey of growth and commitment; to take personal responsibility for the splinters and planks in our eyes; to feed our eyes, ears and souls with everything that is positive, true, beautiful, good and loving; to avoid anything that is dark, negative, cynical, false, sinful or filthy.
Friends. Don’t just drift into this Lent. Welcome it and together let us commit to some form of temperance. Temperance saves us from addictions so that we may continue to enjoy the freedom of the children of God. The three brave men I met at that conference learned this the hard way. I conclude with the inspiring words of one of them: ‘I thank God every day for being sober. My faith in him and his mercy has given me back my life, my hope and my freedom’.