If you don’t give it up for love, you won’t give it up for long.
Growing up in New England—the birthplace of Dunkin Donuts—Dunkin coffee was like mother’s milk to me. Instead of milk, though, I took mine with cream and (because of my diabetes) Sweet n’ Low. It is said that the philosopher Immanuel Kant’s daily walks were so absolutely routine that his neighbors could set their watches by them. My morning runs to Dunkin in graduate school were nearly the same.
One Lent, I decided to switch to black coffee. Quite the sign of heroic virtue, right? I recognized it would only be a small sacrifice, but at least it would be something that I felt the impact of every day, you know? The resolution was made.
By that first Sunday of Lent, I was in misery. It turns out that I loathe unadulterated Dunkin coffee. My mornings were no longer creamy and dulcifying. Instead, they were thin and watery, or sometimes burnt and biting. I would groan with every scalding hot sip. Yuck.
As days turned into weeks, I struggled to maintain the motivation to keep up this penitential practice. When you’re sitting there in line at the drive-thru and you have the ability to choose just this one little sense pleasure, you know, just this one time, what inspires you to turn it down, day after day? Only something higher. No one sacrifices one good unless it’s motivated by a higher one.
With time, I started thinking of the crucifixion. “I thirst,” Jesus says from the cross (Jn. 19:28). In return, as St. Gregory of Nazianzus puts it marvelously,
He is given vinegar to drink mingled with gall. Who? He who turned water into wine, the destroyer of the bitter taste who is sweetness and altogether desire.
In lieu of sweetened coffee, meditating on Christ became my sweetness. And, over the course of the long Lenten weeks, I did gradually grow accustomed to the daily black burnt water—er, coffee. I mean coffee. The sacrifice became easier to make because I was enjoying thoughts of something, or Someone, much higher.
Man cannot live without joy. If he is deprived of true spiritual joys, St. Thomas Aquinas observes, he will pursue and cling to worldly pleasures (ST II-II, q. 35, a. 4, ad 2). Lent is all about recognizing the grip we have on carnal pleasures—or rather, that they have on us—and letting that grip loosen. Giving up lower delights makes space to seek, and enjoy, higher ones.
That Holy Week, I was in Chicago for an academic conference. Walking back to my hotel from Mass on Easter Sunday, I turned the corner and, glancing up, caught sight of three familiar colors: Princeton Orange, Vivid Cerise, and UPS Brown.
“Welcome to Dunkin Donuts. Can I help you?”
Taking my first sip, what went through my mind wasn’t oh, that’s good. Instead, I vividly remember thinking: Jesus Christ is truly risen. As cheesy as it sounds, I probably looked at that medium-sized styrofoam cup as if it were the empty tomb itself. Enjoying my old favorite—with an enjoyment made totally new—became a real and vivid way of experiencing the Resurrection.
Lent shows us that it is possible to forsake the pleasures of the world for the love of God; Easter reveals that our love of sensible goods can be enhanced by our love for God. Through Lenten sacrifices, such loves can get a boost—elevated and oriented toward the pursuit of our ultimate good.
Give it up for love, and you’ll get it back, better than ever, both now and for ages unending. Indeed, Lent is for lovers.
Photo by Nathan Dumlao