Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Spirit of Lent

I have heard it on good authority from Muslims that during Ramadan, when Muslims are expected to fast from sunrise to sunset, it is not uncommon for there to be lavish feasts and parties thrown after sunset that are grander in scope than any meal eaten outside Ramadan. Thus, the technical obligation of fasting during Ramadan is observed, but the penitential nature of the season is obfuscated.

A similar phenomenon can and does happen with Catholics during Lent. Not wanting to be too burdened down with the obligations to do penance that Lent imposes on us, we find little ways around them, ways to still be festive and at ease in the midst of the Church's most intense period of penance, ways in which we fulfill the letter of the law whilst completely missing the purpose of this season of austerity.

The examples are legion, but I think you know what I am talking about. Here are some common Lenten loopholes:

Staying up until midnight feasting the day before Ash Wednesday and Good Friday so you don't experience hunger the next day.

Conversely, staying up until 12:01 on Ash Wednesday or Good Friday and pigging out on meat as soon as the fast is technically over.

On fast days, eating one massively, grossly inflated meal so that your "two snacks" that can't equal the size of the meal can likewise be larger than usual, in practice, two other meals.

Going out of the way to create Friday meatless meals that are nevertheless lavish, extravagant or excessively celebratory, as if Fridays in Lent are not meant for penance but rather for an exercise in culinary creativity.

Changing your Lenten resolutions midway through Lent or applying them on different days to get around enforcing them (YOU: "I'm giving up movies for Lent!" FRIEND: "Hey, wanna go watch a movie?" YOU: "Uh...well, I'm only giving it up on Mondays, Wednesday's and Fridays!" FRIEND: "Sweet. Today is Tuesday.")

All of these examples are a bit crass and stem from a lackadaisical attitude towards Lent that views the season in terms of doing the bare minimum.While I am pretty sure nobody who reads this blog regularly does these sorts of things, it is still possible to miss the spirit of the seasons even if you are not guilty of these more egregious examples.

Whatever your Lenten regimen, the point of Lent is that the season is supposed to be penitential; this does not simply mean that we notice that Father is wearing purple, give up meat for a few Fridays, cover our mouths jokingly when we almost say "Alleluia", or patronizing the parish Fish Fry. Penance has an objective element (hence the Church's Lenten disciplines that are binding on everyone), but it is also a profoundly personal and subjective thing, and when the Church tells us that a season is supposed to be penitential, it means nothing other than that we are supposed to experience it as penitential. If we intentionally arrange our circumstances in such a way as to avoid experiencing any unpleasantness, difficulty, or challenge during Lent, then we are negating the purpose of the season.

Of course, we do not eat meat on Fridays in my home, not only during Lent, but ever. But beyond that, even though are Friday meals are always meatless, we also try to make them simple, frugal affairs that lack flair and ostentation. Broccoli and rice. Tomato soup and grilled cheese. Baked beans and mac n' cheese with dinner rolls with water to drink. We are supposed to feel and realize that we are being deprived of something, not manipulate our circumstances to offset the penitence of Lent by creating little islands of pleasure within the season over and above what we would being doing under normal circumstances.

If we are going to go through the trouble of observing Lent, we want it to be of real benefit to our souls. There is a threefold way to do this.

In the first place, use Lent as an opportunity to cut off a bad or sinful habit that you ought to be giving up anyway. There are graces available to those who avail themselves of the penance the Church prescribes for this season, and real opportunities for growth in holiness.We ought always be striving to cut off sin, but Lent is an especially appropriate time to do this.

Besides this, give up something that is a legitimate good, and something that is actually challenging (in other words, something you will experience as penitential). There is benefit to our souls in depriving our bodies of a legitimate good, because they help unshackle the reason from the passions and redirect it towards heavenly ends. Even so, remember that a smaller penance done with great regularity and devotion is better than an extreme penance done in fits of passion and only now and then.

Finally, add an extra devotion to your life, extra periods of prayer, extra visits to the Blessed Sacrament, more daily Masses if possible, extra Scripture reading: something that can help dispose the soul more towards God during this time and take advantage of the grace God offers us. People often miss the connection that part of the purpose in giving up an activity during Lent is to replace it with prayer. If we are giving up watching movies, then the time we would have spent doing that should be at least partially spent in some activity conducive to the salvation of our souls, not some other fun activity that replaces the one we are giving up. If we usually watch a movie every Thursday afternoon but during Lent we go to the indoor waterpark on that day instead, then we are missing it. If we gave up chocolate, we do not gain anything by eating Skittles in its place. Offer up the longing for chocolate you experience as a prayer for the sanctification of your soul.

Lent ought to be experienced as penitential. If not, we are wasting our time. This is a big problem in the Church today; Catholics know penance only by name, only as a sacrament, or perhaps a season that is said to be 'penitential', but we do not know penance as St. Paul did: "I chastise my body and bring it into subjection." Why? "Lest perhaps, when I have preached to others, I myself should become a castaway" (1 Cor. 9:27)


Anonymous said...


You might find the Marounite guidelines for Lent challenging and of interest;

We commenced on Mon 11 February (Ash Monday for us) and every day during lent except Sat and Sun is full fast from midnight to midday (except water; some Marounites even forego this) and a complete prohibition on all dairy, land-based flesh-food (with the exception of fish and shellfish) no wine, and no oil (though solid state is permissable, e.g. nuts, avocado, olives and seeds). The Eastern approach to asceticism is a little different than that of the West. On Sat and Sun, fasting is not observed, but abstenance from the above food-groups is. I've also knocked out all 'whites' and refined someone with a diagnosed calcium and vitamin D deficiency and osteo-perotic spine (osteo-penia in the remainder of bone structure having already endured an L1 spinal compression fracture two years ago; under 45), nuts, seeds and various spices that contain valuable quantities of nutriant even in small doses (see for all peer-reviewed and referenced info on this sort of thing) are retained. I've got to be comparitively careful (we observe this fast regime in Advent, plus several weeks mid year also), but its amazing. You're right about more time to pray e.g. more time in the morning to go through the office and other prayers properly, to start my day with Christ).

as Christ Jesus fasted for 40 days immediately prior to launching his adult Earthly ministry, this period of Lent for Marounites draws from Christ's experience. it also sharpens the mind and clears the senses; a truth known to Monastic communities for millenia. The home-stretch of Marounite Lent includes a 48 hour fast in the two days prior to Easter Sunday from 11:59 Holy thu night until 11:59 Holy Sat night; let me tell you, this is a whole other world of fast, and through Christ subduing the lower nature (just water for these two days; by the final few hours, one's prayer experience can be incredible!

As I cannot drive, please pray that I can be granted rides to all the Church services etc in the days prior to and including Easter Sunday; e.g. all our Good Friday processions, the Divine Mercy hour at 3:00pm, evening services, and midnight mass on Holy Saturday night/Easter Sunday morning, as being unable to drive (or take means to remedy this situation for disability reasons), I have to miss much of the programmes at church and the dream of being a daily communicant is just that - a dream...

May all have a blessed and faith-filled renewing (not forgetting penetential) Lent,


Cyril said...

May I have your permission to use this article on our Sunday bulletin?

Boniface said...

Yes you absolutely may, so long as you mention what site you got it from. Just attribute it to, and if the bulletin is posted electronically on your parish webpage, please post a link to it in this combox.

you might be interested in this one on fasting as well: