Of all the seasons in the calendar of the Church, I love Lent the best. It hasn’t always been so. But through a re-examination of my faith, and an exploration of the purpose and meaning of Lent, I’ve come to a deep appreciation for this holy season of waiting.
As a child, I thought of Lent as a burdensome and empty time. The Mass was stripped to its bare elements. The absence of the Gloria and the banishment of “Allelulia” reflected to me a sense of sadness in the Church. There was no excitement like I felt during Advent, the other season of waiting. For children, Advent brings excited expectations: the waiting of Advent is imbued with anticipation, with that ever-present child’s focus on Christmas morning, complete with presents and a break from school. Along the way, we have Advent calendars (complete with candy!) and advent wreaths, parties, greeting cards, and beautiful decorations. Happiness, hope, and good cheer abound as we explore the “spirit of the season”. Who can’t get excited about that? But for Lent, it’s easy for kids to think that all it ends up with is an Easter basket and a big family meal. Those are nice things, but for a child a pale comparison to Christmas.
Then there was the question of “giving something up.” My Catholic school friends would ask each other, “What are you giving up this year?” Inevitably the Lenten penance revolved around food. Dessert was a common theme, as was chocolate and soda pop. It was something that I did as a matter of tradition, but without any deeper understanding.
And to be honest, I was never very good at being true to my commitment to abstain from whatever it was I gave up that year. There was always an excuse, or just plain forgetfulness. And I didn’t feel so bad when I strayed, anyway. I thought, “Who cares whether or not I eat a piece of cake? I’m hungry and I love cake!”
As I grew into adulthood, I drifted away from the Church. I was too busy making my way in the world, and too lazy to care about my faith. I was fully engaged in the world, determined to make my mark and have a good time doing it. But the emptiness of this life began to consume me. I misplaced my faith, focusing on myself and the world. But I found redemption and forgiveness when I returned to the Church. In the years since I returned, I’ve been on my journey to understand better the deeper meaning behind the traditions of the Church. And so, twelve years ago, I decided to get serious about Lent.
Jesus is the perfect model for how we should conduct our Lenten journey. As you probably know, Lent’s 40 days mirror the 40 days that Jesus spent in the desert. In the 4th chapter of Luke, we learn that Jesus heads to the desert after John baptizes Him. During this time, Jesus fasts and prays. And he is tempted by the devil. He endures this time, resisting Satan; and when Jesus emerges from the desert, He begins his ministry in full force. Luke tells us that Jesus “returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee.”
We too are called to head into the desert, so that the end of Lent’s 40 days, we return in the power of the Spirit. Like Jesus, we must step out of this world in order to focus on heavenly things and what that means to how we live our lives.
Okay, that’s a nice idea. But how do we apply this in the here and now? Let’s face it – making our way into the desert isn’t exactly practical. Our families, our jobs, our friends, and other responsibilities make it difficult for us to take even a simple one-week vacation, let alone one of 40 days. Not to mention the practical matter of a lack of a nearby desert.
But we can still find ways to step out of the world, focusing our mind and spirit on heaven, even as we live our daily lives. In fact, I think the whole point is to figure out how to be focused on Jesus as we live our lives. We want to live in the world, but not be of the world.
The Church guides us with several tools to help us accomplish this. With these tools, we can take a step back to contemplate God’s grace revealed through Christ’s death and resurrection, and how we can re-commit our lives to living this Truth.
The Church gives us three pillars of Lenten practice: fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. St. Augustine links all three when he tells us, “Do you wish your prayer to fly toward God? Give it two wings: fasting and almsgiving.”
It’s important to note that all three are about giving. Fasting is giving up food. Almsgiving is giving up worldly possessions. Prayer is giving time, focus, and energy to talk with God. They are all a denial of self, of our earthly desires. They place us where we can better understand God and receive His grace. They reflect our earnest desire to live with God’s Word planted deep in our hearts. They are purposeful ways we can show God that we “get it”, that we are knocking on His door and that we understand the magnitude of God’s grace. We humbly bow before Him with purposeful intent of living according to His will. In short – we’re dying to self, giving our lives over to God.
So the three pillars should be a fundamental part of every Catholic’s Lenten journey. The U.S. Bishops’ Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence provides some good guidance. The three pillars are prominently featured, with specific directives to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and abstain from meat on all Fridays during Lent. As for other days, the bishops recommend daily Mass, self-imposed fasting, and generosity to those in need. But the bishops also make the following statement: “We also recommend spiritual studies, beginning with the Scriptures as well as the traditional Lenten Devotions (sermons, Stations of the Cross, and the rosary), and all the self-denial summed up in the Christian concept of ‘mortification.’ ”
Mortification? That’s a charged word. It makes me think of self-flagellation and other forms of physical injury to the body. But the website for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops has a list of forms of penance that are useful during Lent. In this list the Bishops tell us, “mortification is a form of ascetic discipline that involves denial of some kind of enjoyment in order to gain a greater detachment from one’s desires. The goal of mortification is fullness of life, not death—freedom, not enslavement.”
This is the Catholic foundation for why we give up something for Lent.
My penance is a means to help me to stay focused during Lent on Jesus’ death and resurrection. It’s a persistent reminder not to focus on worldly things. I liken it to a small pebble in my shoe. It doesn’t give me great pain or affliction, but with each step, it sharpens my focus on my effort to walk. How fast am I moving? Where am I heading? Is this the right road?
So when I became serious about Lent twelve years ago, I considered what I could give up that would impact my life. It couldn’t be momentary and occasional. It had to be something that I would encounter daily, and the broader the impact on my daily routine, the better. If I was going to do this, I wanted it to count. I don’t mean to denigrate the traditional penances of avoiding sweets or alcohol. They’re not right for me, but they’re good penances if they help you advance to the goal of emerging from the desert sprit-filled.
I believe the Holy Spirit spoke to me and gave me the answer I had been seeking: for Lent, I would abide by all traffic laws.
I’m not kidding.
This may not seem that big a deal to you, but to me it is. Here in Atlanta, ignoring traffic laws is considered a God-given right. Speed limits are simply a suggestion. Ten, 20, even 30 MPH over the speed limit is common. Rolling stops are the norm. “Right turn on red after stop?” It’s more like “Right turn on red after slightly slowing down, especially if I see you coming”. A yellow light means, “floor it.”
It’s a contagious, terrible affliction. Go 70 on Georgia 400 and you find yourself suddenly going 80 to keep up with the sedan passing you on the right. Jump lanes to keep the advantage. Tailgate when the idiot in front of you isn’t going fast enough in the left lane. It comes from a selfish part of me that I’m not proud of: I’m an important person! I have places to be, so get out of my way!
Rush, rush, rush! Wait until the last minute to leave. Or wait until 10 minutes after the last minute. I can make up the time in your car. Sure, I’ll still be a little late, but the people you’re meeting certainly understand how important you are and don’t mind spending a little time waiting…
Now do this every day, twice a day, to and from work. Or taking the kids to school. Or to the store, or dinner with friends.
Or to church.
Is this living in the world, but not of the world? Is this filling my spirit?
How can I possibly make a 40 day Lenten journey living this way day in and day out and expect to be anywhere near sprit-filled on Easter Sunday?
So this Lent, I will once more give up my terrible driving habits. The first year, I was stunned at the impact on my life. It forces me to spend 1 1/2 to 2 hours per day focused on others. No longer am I placing my own needs first, but instead am letting others be first. Instead of focusing on getting ahead of the next car, I’ve freed my mind up to pray, or think about last Sunday’s homily, or some other aspect of my spiritual life.
The impact goes beyond my time in the car, too. Let’s just say I’m punctually-challenged. So if I’m going to be driving slower, that means more time to get to where I’m going. That means leaving earlier. That means planning better. And because just about everything I do is impacted, I’m constantly reminded that I’m on my Lenten journey. It keeps things in perspective. It keeps that pebble in my shoe.
It’s a struggle. The temptation surrounds me every day. But the important thing is that I’ve found a pebble to put in my shoe. When Holy Week arrives, I’m spiritually prepared, because I’ve found a way to focus my attention away from worldly things and towards Jesus Christ, reminding me throughout each day that there are greater things at work in my life, helping me to lift my heart in prayer, my eyes toward heaven, so I can consider what God is calling me to do with my life.
When Holy Week arrives, I want to be ready, especially for Good Friday. On this day, the full meaning of Christ’s sacrifice and God’s awesome love and grace comes crashing down on my shoulders. I always think I’m ready for it, but I never really am.
Because of my faithful observance of Lent, when Good Friday comes and I kneel to venerate the cross, I will be filled with gratitude, and also with love for God, for His grace, and for His mercy. I’ll feel it wash over me, simultaneously awesome and devastating. Lent will be over, and my spirit will be filled. I’ll be renewed and ready for Easter and the hope of Christ’s resurrection. I’ll have spent each day of the last six weeks trying to better comprehend what the resurrection means for me.
Having stepped out of the world for a while, it will be time to return from the desert in the power of the Spirit.
David Schmitt is a guest contributor.
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