Fr. Roger J. Landry
Putting Out Into The Deep
February 08, 2013
It’s five days from the beginning of the holy season of Lent and time for us to be formulating our Lenten resolutions in conversation with God in prayer. During this Year of Faith, in which everything we do ought to be done with a more conscious and intense faith, it’s a time in which we ought to be especially bold in setting our Lenten commitments.
As we make our Lenten resolutions, we should keep in mind the whole purpose of Lent. Pope Benedict has repeatedly said that it is not about making a small-course correction in our lives, but about experiencing a radical and total conversion. It’s a moral exodus in which we give up the easy superficiality in which we live — lowering ourselves to the habits of those around us and conforming ourselves to the worldly standards of celebrities, athletes, politicians and peers — and resolve to adopt faithfully, step by step, Christ’s own path. It’s meant to be a Passover from mediocrity to sanctity, from being a part-time disciple to inserting ourselves fully into Christ’s paschal mystery, dying to ourselves so that Christ can truly live within us.
Lent is meant to help us recalibrate our entire existence and propel us toward becoming the Christian that our faith calls us to be. Our resolutions need to keep this in mind. Will giving up candy for 40 days really make us holy? How about filling up a rice bowl with loose change or adding three extra Hail Marys at the end of the day? Such resolutions are, I think, equivalent to a professional football player’s thinking he can train for the upcoming season by lifting five-pound barbells and watching Richard Simmons’ videos!
Rather, especially in Lent, we need to put out into the deep.
Many Catholics have become spiritual sissies in their resolutions. And if we’re wimps in the annual spiritual boot camp of Lent, then it’s almost impossible for us to have the spiritual discipline to live by Christ’s high standards throughout the rest of the year.
It’s not enough to give up “something,” or to pray “a little more” or give loose change to those in need. Lent is 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 person He created us to be, died for us to be, and wants us to be. It’s a time to be formed, precisely, into other Christs.
When Jesus calls us in the Ash Wednesday Gospel to pray, fast, and give alms, He’s not calling us to do anything He Himself didn’t do. In our prayer, self-discipline and self-giving, He summons us to follow and imitate His own bold example. Jesus prayed and fasted in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights. He gave Himself to others to the last drop of His Blood. Our praying, fasting and almsgiving are meant to conform us to Christ in His prayer, fasting and total self-giving.
Just as the devil tempted Adam and Eve in the garden and Jesus in the desert, so he seeks to tempt us. He tries to trick us to disorder our relationship ourselves, to others, and to God. Fasting, almsgiving, and prayer are the respective antidotes.
The more we fast and place spiritual nourishment over material food, the less vulnerable we will be to being tempted by bread and other earthly pleasures.
The more we sacrifice ourselves and our belongings for the good of others, the less prone we will be to giving in to the devil’s seductions to seek power or control over others.
The more we pray to God and hunger to know and do His will in our lives the less assailable we will be to the devil’s traps presumptuously to force God’s hand.
These three traditional practices of Lent are a great remedy to the temptations of the evil one, which is why the Church proposes them to us each year. But we’re never going to receive the graces of conversion and holiness if we look at these practices as a multiple-choice test or set such low goals with respect to them that, even if we keep them for 40 days, they’re really not going to help us much on the road to holiness and Heaven.
So I’d like to suggest a few ideas with regard to the three Lenten practices Christ lived and called us to emulate in a particularly audacious way.
First, prayer. Prayer is faith in action. If God is really first in our life, we will make the commitment not merely to say a few prayers, but to make this loving dialogue with God our biggest daily priority. 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 healing and strength to realign the direction of our life: rather than fitting Him into our day if we have time, we resolve to center our whole lives on Him. Some Lenten resolutions to do this would be to come to daily Mass, for can there be anything more important than receiving God within?; praying the Stations of the Cross each Friday; making a daily Holy Hour, if possible within Eucharistic Adoration, as we stay vigilant with Him in Gethsemane; and trying to attend a Lenten mission or making a retreat.
Second, fasting. Many of us, even though we say we believe in God, live as materialists. We work so hard to put food in our refrigerator and on our tables, but we don’t work as hard or at all to nourish ourselves spiritually. Fasting precisely helps us to reorder everything, to say no to the devil’s temptations to prioritize our stomach rather than our soul. 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. Fasting only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday is not enough to accomplish a true conversion from materialistic hyperdependence. The fast I ordinarily recommend is three-fold: drink only water throughout Lent; give up all condiments on food (salt, pepper, sugar, butter, ketchup, salad dressing); and forsake sweets and snacks between meals. That’s a type of fast that not only is healthy but at the end of 40 days will fill you with the discipline that it takes to be a disciple! I’d also encourage you to fast from television and use the time you gain to dedicate to prayer, reading the Bible and learning the “Catechism,” as the Holy Father has asked during this Year of Faith.
Lastly, almsgiving. 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 care for Christ (Mt 25:45). Jesus, Who gave everything for us, tells us to follow Him in this way, by giving of ourselves, our time and our material resources for others. How charitable should we be? Until it hurts, not giving of our surplus time or resources, but extending ourselves like the widow with her mite. Such a standard of generosity will conform us to Christ’s standard of love, which is the whole point of the Christian moral life.
To become holy is the purpose of the holy season of Lent, but it will achieve its purpose only if we go “all in.”