Among Catholics who take the season of Lent seriously, I’ve noticed a number of different approaches. There are the subscribers to Lent as boot camp. Boot campers decide to fast not just from one food they love, but from most foods they love. Added to this, they decide to get up an hour earlier than normal to pray or go to Mass, and they are going to give money to anyone they meet who needs help. A second group makes one serious commitment and day by day spends a little more time thinking about God, remembers they are not eating fried foods and discovers the joy of crunchy vegetables, and starts collecting their change each day so as to make a contribution to a worthy group. A third group is pretty darn casual about the whole thing, happy that, over forty days, they may remember not to eat meat on a Friday or two, will get to confession, and will go all in for the campus ministry or parish hunger awareness campaign.
Many of us, me included, have a love-hate relationship with Lent. It can so easily become more of a contest than a season of prayer. Thomas Merton once remarked that his brothers, in wanting to outdo one another in the severity of their fasts, became a bunch of grouchy, miserable men. Far better, Thomas thought, to feast and give thanks to God for his abundance than to fast and make yourself and others miserable. How is that holy? Thomas wondered.
The ancient disciplines of prayer, fasting, almsgiving which define the season of Lent are about making right the three most important relationships in the life of a Christian, God, self and others. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church we read that “the interior penance of the Christian can be expressed in many and various ways. Scripture and the Fathers insist above all on three forms, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, which express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1434). Rather than a contest with our best and worst selves, we are invited to think about what will make our relationship with God stronger. Where do we need to bring some balance into our lives so as to be healthier and what relationships are asking us to be more giving; emotionally, practically or monetarily?
I’ve learned from my own experience that Lent is most fruitful when I take some time to think about how I can deepen my relationship with God. What am I eating or drinking or doing (or maybe not doing) that is really not healthy or good for me? And where can I be more generous with the people who are part of my everyday life? Answering these questions opens up a number of practices that will make a difference over the course of forty days. My goal is to make these things a habit, not doing them for forty days and then be done, but rather to discover at the end of 40 days, they have become easier and have found a permanent place in my daily routine. If done well, I also am more aware of the depth and breadth of God’s love and mercy, because whether I am successful or not, I am saved. Jesus died for me so that my own failures and sins are not the end of my story.
Susan Timoney is the Assistant Secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington.