Sunday, February 21, 2016

Lent: How's it going?

Ash Wednesday, it seems to me, is a lot like New Year's in that many of us tend to make quite a few challenging resolutions. One contrast is that New Year's resolutions seem to be more about taking things up, rearranging one's priorities, while Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, tends to be more about giving things up. Of course, New Year's has no inherently religious significance. This observation is in no way intended as a slight to marking a new year by making positive resolutions. On the contrary, I like making New Year's resolutions. I also think it's important to observe Lent both by penitentially giving things up and doing positive things for others. One way our Lenten resolutions differ from our New Year's resolutions is serving others, particularly those in need, which, in addition to giving money, is what constitutes alms-giving.

Today we embark on the second full week of Lent. If we're doing it right, this is about the time when Lent starts to take a bit of a toll on us, to become real, as it were. In all likelihood most of us have already failed to scrupulously keep all of our Lenten resolves. Whether it's praying everyday, going to Mass once or twice during the week, caving in and eating a chocolate bar, watching an episode of your favorite t.v. show, not praying the Rosary every day, not seeking out a way to serve, etc., chances are you've failed at least once. While, I suppose, this is not ideal, it isn't as a big a deal as you might think.

Several years ago, meeting with those in the parish who were the Elect (i.e., those who would be baptized at the Paschal Vigil), I invited the group of about 10 people to share how they were doing with their Lenten resolutions as they prepared for their Christian initiation. As we took turns sharing, most of us shared our failures and frustrations. It was a great group who encouraged each other as we shared. But one woman, who is Jewish (she didn't stop being Jewish when she became Catholic), a person who did not set the bar low for herself, like I tend to do (I am weak, there's no doubt), shared that she had been able to meticulously adhere to everything she set out to do and give up during Lent. She then shared that when she realized her "success" she began to feel proud of herself. Feeling proud of herself, she said, made her realize almost instantly that such "success" isn't really the point of Lenten observance. So what if she'd kept all of her self-appointed rules, what did that mean in of itself? I'm not going to venture an answer, but just pose those questions.

Cartoonist Kevin Frank's "Heaven's Love Thrift Shop" strip for 31 January 2016


Of course, we don't set about to do, or not do, in order fail, doing that would be pretty damned silly. Answering the question posed above, while keeping in mind that we don't endeavor in order to fail, I think helps us to better discern how best to approach Lent. As James Kushiner observed quite a few years ago in an article about observing Lent: "A discipline won’t bring you closer to God. Only God can bring you closer to Himself. What the discipline is meant to do is to help you get yourself, your ego, out of the way so you are open to His grace."

Another important aspect of Lent, it seems to me, is often overlooked these days - not being public with what you do, or about what you're giving up. What makes this so odd is that being public about our prayer, fasting, and alms-giving is something we're warned about in our reading from St. Matthew's Gospel on Ash Wednesday (Matt 6:1-6.16-18). But in this age of the selfie and easy access to so many social media platforms (i.e., Blogger, Wordpress, Instagram, G+, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, etc.) it is a constant temptation to break our metaphorical arm patting ourselves on the back for all the world to see. While I think it's a bit more complex than simply being prideful, it is still something we should assiduously try to avoid.

In any case, we still have about a month of Lent left to go. For those of you who, like me, have failed, don't be discouraged, especially if how you decided to observe Lent was prayerfully discerned. Renew your commitment and trust God to bring about what he set to bring about in and through these things. If what you're doing, or not doing for Lent, was arbitrary, or last minute, that is, not prayerfully discerned, think about giving yourself a reprieve and do a re-boot. Continue abstaining on Fridays, fast on Good Friday, seek to maximize your Rice Bowl contribution, spend 10-15 minutes in silence each day, and participate in Stations of the Cross at your parish the remaining Fridays of Lent. If you've been "successful," ask yourself, "What fruit are my Lenten disciplines bearing in my own life and the lives of others?"

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for these helpful reflections. I find it's fairly easy to fall into an unhelpful obsession that turns Lent into a sort of "Catholic Olympics." That, of course, just makes the time unproductive and frustrating. When Easter arrives, you don't feel worthy or prepared for it.

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