Living the Spirit of Lent

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By Nick Jones, University of Rhode Island

It’s said that love will make you do crazy things. I think that there’s some truth to this, but that it also requires a bit of nuance. To be sure, there’s no shortage of people doing downright idiotic things in order to impress someone they love. But then there are examples of people who are willing to do radically self-deferential things for someone they love. According to the morally bankrupt society in which we live, this too might be seen as crazy. The three-fold discipline of Lent falls into this second category. At times it feels arbitrary; at times we fall victim to those societal norms. Why do I NEED to fast twice a year, denying myself and becoming miserable as a result? If there were no God, sure, that would be crazy. But there is a God, and we are called to love Him. And if we love Him, indeed, if we love anyone, we must be willing to do all manner of good things in order to maintain that relationship. That is the key to understanding the discipline and spirit of Lent: relationship. 

There are three keys to maintaining any relationship. First, a relationship requires communication. If we say that we love someone, then we must be willing and able to talk to them. Second, a relationship requires a willingness to sacrifice for the good of the other. If we say that we love someone, then we must be willing to sacrifice a part of our own desires or self-interests in order to love the person with greater dedication. Third, a relationship requires a willingness to give to the person we love. If we say that we love someone, we must provide for their needs as much as we are able. Providentially, there are also three pillars of Lent. These pillars are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Scripturally, they are found in Matthew 6, when Jesus describes correct and incorrect ways to practice them. The majority of this chapter is read as the Gospel on Ash Wednesday. As an aside, historically, the pillars came to be associated with Lent when they were prescribed for catechumens and public sinners who would be welcomed to the church at Easter. Once again, here we see the connection of Lenten discipline and our relationship with God. They were eventually deemed beneficial for the rest of the laity. This period of preparation eventually expanded from 3 days to 40 days, calling to mind the 40 years of the Exodus and the 40 days Christ spent in the desert. Each of the keys to a relationship corresponds to one of the pillars of Lent. Communication with the person relates to prayer. Sacrificing for the person relates to fasting. Giving to the person relates to almsgiving. By looking at each pillar in detail and understanding what the Church mandates with regard to each one, we can understand why the Church asks us to do it and how it will benefit our relationship with God. 

Prayer is the most fundamental aspect of our love of God. Traditionally, Holy Mother Church has maintained that “lex orandi, lex credendi,” in English “the law of prayer is the law of belief.” As the Church believes, so too does she pray (cf. CCC 1124). Tradition also tells us that there are four fundamental types of prayer: adoration, which is the praise of God for His intrinsic glory; thanksgiving, which thanks God for the blessings He gives us; petition, with which we ask God for still greater grace and blessings; and atonement or contrition, whereby we express sorrow for our sins and seek to make amends for them. While all of these are important ways through which we commune with God and each one helps emphasize a different aspect of our relationship with Him, atonement/contrition is especially appropriate for Lent. As we meditate upon the Savior’s cruel Passion, emphasized by the readings and orations at Mass, we ought to feel true sorrow for our sins which caused it. We can pray better during Lent by availing ourselves to the Sacrament of Confession, by attending a Lenten Mission or by praying the Stations of the Cross. Whatever route we take, we must be sure to do so out of a genuine desire to grow in holiness and love of God. Each day, we must be willing to pray more. Perhaps more for one person means spending extra time in prayer. For someone who already has a robust prayer life, the challenge is to pray more intentionally, with greater focus. No matter how much or how well we pray, we must always be sure to recognize that there is always room to grow because none of us know how to pray as we ought (cf. Romans 8:26). Recalling the principle from above, as we pray with the Church in observation of the sorrows of Christ’s life, so to will, we internalize a deeper belief in them. 

Before discussing fasting, it’s useful to first understand what the Church asks of us with regard to it. Fasting is required for all Roman Catholics, ages 18-59, inclusive. This entails eating one regular-sized meal and two smaller meals which together do not exceed the size of the first. Fasting is obligatory only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Abstinence from meat (except for fish) is required for all Catholics 14 and older. This applies on Ash Wednesday and each Friday of Lent. Abstinence or some other penance is required on every other Friday (solemnities excepted) as well.  Now that we know the “what,” we can ask the “why.” (Going forward, fasting will be used as a stand-in for any practice of self-denial.) Why do we fast and how can we fast better? We fast, denying ourselves a good thing, in order that we might focus on the best thing, our relationship with God. We take away some of the joys of life in order that we might focus more intently on Him Who is the very substance of joy. We fast liturgically as well, taking away flowers, instruments, and the Alleluia and Gloria. When all these things return at Easter, the joy of that day is reinforced by sensory gratification. We might be tempted to think that since Christ already made the ultimate sacrifice, our little sacrifices are all for naught. On the contrary, fasting helps us to enter more fully into the reality of Calvary. We can never pay the same debt as Christ, but by fasting we can understand to a limited degree what true sacrificial love feels like. By fasting we can also make atonement for our sins, remitting temporal punishment and limiting time in Purgatory. So how do we fast better? First, we do well to remember that fasting need not be limited to food. Consider this quote from Saint Basil: “Let us fast an acceptable and very pleasing fast to the Lord. True fast is the estrangement from evil, temperance of tongue, abstinence from anger, separation from desires, slander, falsehood, and perjury. Privation of these is true fasting.” Instead of giving up some foodstuff for Lent, we should try to fast from other pleasures. We should try to defeat our appetites for things that may please us but are actually harmful to us. Maybe we spend too much time on our phones; Lent is a great time to trade time on Facebook for time with the Good Book. Maybe we have noticed some new vices in our lives; Lent is a great time to be more dedicated to self-improvement in these areas. Lent is not a time to be miserable and this shouldn’t be the result of our fasting. But, we also must also discern whether we actually are doing too much or if our will simply need to be strengthened. 

Scripture is particularly helpful for understanding almsgiving in terms of our Lenten observance. Christ was clear that almsgiving should both be a genuine sacrifice according to one’s means and one that is not self-aggrandizing (cf. Luke 21:1-4 and Matthew 6:2-4). Additionally, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council tell us in Gaudium et Spes that “Man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.” It is clearly the thought of the Church that almsgiving is an act that makes us more authentically human, and thus more authentically a reflection of God, whose image and likeness we bear. In these acts of charity, we are configured to more perfectly model the supernatural virtue of charity, infused at Baptism, so that we can emulate God Who is Charity (cf. 1 John 4:8). Giving to others helps to make us more willing to give in greater ways whenever the opportunity arises. Pious tradition tells us that there are three sorts of alms to be given. First, there is time. We can give time by simply being present when someone needs us. Perhaps the parish needs help decorating for a holy day. Or, perhaps a friend just underwent a tough trial. By giving of our time we can help others to bear their burdens, serving Christ at the same time (cf. Galatians 6:2 and Matthew 25:45). The second type of alms we can give is our talent. Each of us has a unique set of skills. Some of us have managed to turn these skills into the basis of our livelihoods while they are mere hobbies for others. Still, we are encouraged to use them for the glory of God through the advancement of His Church’s mission. This could be as profound as a doctor doing pro bono work in an underprivileged community or as simple as someone with a great voice joining the church choir. Lastly, we can give treasure as alms. While the Church is a supernatural reality, she cannot escape the monetary demands of the world. Hosts, candles, bulletins, power/heat, the missions, etc. all cost a great deal. We need to be willing, according to our means, to give to support the Church. Traditionally, people would tithe by giving 10% of their income. How much you give depends on your assessment of your ability. Obviously the freshman in college should give less than the stockbroker. Remember the poor widow from Luke 21 who gave more proportionally than anyone else. We don’t need to bankrupt ourselves as we give, but we need to ask if we are truly sacrificing as we do it. When considering giving of any sort, we should remember our Lord’s sobering parable of the talents. No matter what He gives us, God demands that we multiply its effect throughout our lives (cf. Matthew 25:14-30).

I would like to add one last point of consideration. The ultimate end of each of our whole lives, and thus of our Lenten discipline, is to work for the greater glory of God; ad majorem Dei gloriam, as the Jesuits say. While these practices may have ancillary effects that benefit us, we should never perform them just because we will benefit. So often we hear of people wanting to use Lent merely as an opportunity for self-improvement. This isn’t what the Church wants. We live out our Lenten discipline to deepen our relationship with God because that renders Him the greatest glory. We talk to Him in prayer not only to obtain graces/favors but also that we more clearly discern His will and contemplate His salvific Passion. We fast from earthly pleasures not just so that we can stay fit or procrastinate less, but more importantly so that we can recognize Who the greatest joy of our lives ought to be. We give alms not only to feel secure and validated in the faith but so much more meaningfully do we do it in order to serve Christ and further the mission of His Church. And, though Lent, of course, is a great time to start, these things can and should happen each day as well, with Lent serving as our yearly checkpoint to reassess and rededicate.  

Edited By: Ariel Hobbs

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