A serious Lent


This halfway point in Lent is a good time to review how we’re doing. If there is a noticeable change in our routine, something good could be happening. If we’re going along with the same old  investment of time, nothing much will change.
We should expect the same stale spirit, not a new one.
By this time we’ve forgotten the ashes we took on as a mark of these special weeks leading up to Easter. This is our 40 days in the desert with Jesus. Along with him, we should be clearing away the busyness of ordinary life — all that blinds us from our destiny in God. Sooner or later we all become ashes. What form will our ashes assume in the presence of God?
The Church continues to promote three traditional, ancient exercises for building a strong spiritual life: fasting, praying, giving to the poor. The fact that these are ancient should tell us that they have power. But we have to get into them seriously, not just nibble at the safe edge: a little extra prayer, fish or mac and cheese on Fridays as a substitute for fasting, a little extra in the check for Catholic Relief Services.
A minimal investment in anything gets minimal returns. Though God can do miracles, we can’t be presumptuous and expect them.
The essence of Lent is getting out of self-regard so we can experience the other, especially the divine Other of God. It’s such an easy habit to focus on ourselves, what we need, what we want, what we see. It’s the habit that stifles growth. We need the spirit of small children who can only look to others in trust for what they need, and they grow rapidly. But too soon we start to worry about losing what we have and what we know. Openings to further vital growth gradually close up.
The body wants to be fed. For most of us in this country it becomes easy to over-feed the body. Hunger signals, along with our habits of responding to them, become the dictators who rule our days. We adults can’t enjoy a feast because we haven’t felt its absence; we haven’t fasted so we can’t experience feast-joy.
It’s not too late to do some serious fasting this Lent so that Easter joy means something real.
And serious fasting means turning attention and money to the needs of others. As we turn from self-concern, self-feeding, to concern for others who don’t have enough, we find time and money and compassion we didn’t realize was available. A different spirit begins to emerge in us at the same time.
All of this turning away from the old self doesn’t come without deep resistance. Each of us has that devil in us who tempted Jesus in the desert. When he’s deprived of his usual stuff he gets agitated. Wait, he says. Think about what you’re giving up. It feels good. You need it. Be good to yourself. You deserve it. Buy those shoes, get the steaks. Ignore those poor folks. They probably deserve their fate.
The antidote to this poison is prayer. Jesus spent 40 days in prayer to strengthen himself against the devil’s rise. The presence of the Father, his destiny, was the stronger presence.
We need to give more attention to praying; to quieting ourselves and inviting God within. Lent is a good time to practice this. There is no one who doesn’t have 15 minutes a day to be still, quiet the buzz in our heads, and allow the spirit of divine love to settle in.
We want Easter to be a feast, THE feast: a celebration of new life. With a serious Lent as preparation we will rise to the occasion.
Frank Wessling

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