Back to the Fundamentals, The Anchor, February 27, 2009

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
February 27, 2009

During the past two weeks in Florida and Arizona, the world’s greatest baseball players have been fielding ground balls, catching pop ups, laying down bunts, working on pick-off moves, taking relays from the outfield, and practicing double-plays. It’s not that they don’t already know how to do this. Spring training, however, is a time to return to the basics, since if they don’t perfect the fundamentals, it’s going to be a long year on the diamond.

Lent is the time in which Catholics return to the fundamentals of the faith. It’s an occasion to focus our attention for 40 days on things that we’re supposed to be doing throughout the year but that we can often do sloppily or not at all.

In the Gospel on Ash Wednesday, Jesus himself describes for us three fundamental practices we’re called to perfect with his support. These are the three the Church proposes to us each year.

The first is prayer. Jesus says, “Go … pray to your Father.” When we pray, we turn our attention to God and turn away from what keeps us from God. We listen to the Good News he whispers to us in mental prayer or through meditation on the Bible or in the Rosary. We receive his strength to turn away from the temptations we encounter and embrace ever more the life he calls us to. We ultimately recall that we are made for God, for holiness, and for heaven and re-align our priorities to put God first. Rather than fitting him into our day at the end if we have time, we resolve to center our whole lives on him. Therefore, in Lent, Jesus, through the Church he founded, calls each of us to increase the quality and the quantity of our prayer. We can do that by coming to daily Mass, where he teaches us with his Word and then feeds us with his flesh and blood. We can do that by coming praying the Stations of the Cross, in which the Lord strengthens us to pick up our daily Crosses and follow him all the way home to heaven. We can do that by coming to adore him in the Eucharist whereby we accompany him in the desert and in Gethsemane.  

The second practice is fasting. Jesus says, “When you fast….” Fasting, as all Catholics are called to do on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday by norm and each of us is called to do in a way we determine throughout Lent, helps us to recall that our body of dust and its desires are not the most important thing. “Man does not live on bread alone,” Jesus will say to the devil in the desert, “but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4). Sometimes we can live a life in which we just try to satisfy our hungers and desires, to go from one pleasure to another. We can shy away from the tougher parts of the living our faith. Fasting allows us to subordinate our bodily desires and needs to those of our soul. It allows us to control our desires rather than let them control us. That is why oftentimes priests will encourage to fast those who are trying to overcome addictions — to alcohol, to drugs, to sex — because if they can learn how to control a desire that is necessary for survival, like eating, then they can also more easily grow to control desires for things that they don’t really need to survive, like drugs, sex or booze. The more we acquire the ability to say no to our desires, in other words, the easier it is to say yes to God and to more important things.

The third Lenten drill is to give alms. Jesus says, “When you give alms…” Very often the sins we commit flow from selfishness or egocentrism, from putting ourselves first. That is why the Lord commands us to give alms, which requires us to look toward others’ needs, not just our own; to love others in deeds and not just wish them well; to take responsibility for the welfare of others, for as often as we fail to do something for them, we fail to do it to Christ (Mt 25:45). Jesus, who gave everything for us down to his last drop of blood, tells us to follow him in this way, by giving of ourselves, our time and our material resources generously for others.

As we make our Lenten resolutions at the beginning of this 40-day interior pilgrimage, it’s important, first, to keep all three of these practices in mind. Making Lenten resolutions is not meant to be a multiple-choice test in which we select only one of the three fundamental practices to work on. We should make a resolution in each of these three areas, spurred on by a deep repentance for how we’ve so often marginalized God rather than prayed without ceasing; sought to satiate our desires rather than deny ourselves, pick up our Cross and follow Jesus; and ignored or used others rather than loved them as Christ loves us. Just like baseball players in spring training need to work on all aspects of their game, one at a time, so we, too, need to focus on each of these fundamental areas of the Christian life. Otherwise we’ll be no more effective than a ball player who fields fabulously but throws wildly.

Secondly, we need to recall what is the purpose behind all of these practices: to become holy, to become Christ-like, to become a saint. Just like spring training is meant to lay the foundation for what every baseball player desires, a championship, so Lent is supposed to train us for the full season of life so that we might make the eternal hall of fame, not merely individually, but together with the teammates God has given us. The resolutions we make are meant to keep that in mind. Is giving up sweets or coffee during Lent a good penance? It’s certainly not harmful, but it’s hard to see how alone that will be enough to form the person on the road to holiness.

It needs to be admitted that a great deal of pusillanimity has crept into the way many of us make our Lenten resolutions. Christ calls us, rather, to be bold. He gives us this time as an annual three-a-day training camp during which — after the failures of past seasons — to train for holiness. It’s not enough to give up “something,” or to pray “a little more” or to fill up a rice bowl for those in need. It’s a time to respond to the offer of the Lord’s help to push ourselves beyond what we think capable, in order to be formed into the persons and team he created us to be.

It’s a time to be formed, precisely, into other Christs and into the Church.