Wednesday, March 5, 2014
Not Catholic? Great! Read this about Lent. Catholic? You too!
Now if you're not Catholic, watching Catholics this time of year can be confusing, and I know that for some it even becomes frustrating.
Even if you're Catholic, you might not be clear about what the purpose of Lent is. Maybe you just do the same thing over and over again each year without a real plan just because that's what you've always done. Maybe you're just doing what you think the Church tells you to do.
"Tells you to do?" Yeh, that can be a real hangup if you're not Catholic. But that's also why you stand to benefit greatly from observing Lenten practices; maybe more than many of your Catholic friends.
Well, what I am saying is that the real benefit of the Lenten journey is the result of an interior desire to improve your relationship with God. That means doing it because it's the right thing to do and you want to do it.
Improving your relationship with God is about conversion, an on-going process of conforming to the Christian life. That means conversion really relates to our disposition with ourselves and others as well as with God.
We accomplish conversion through examination of conscience, admitting our faults, reconciliation, spiritual direction, empathy and action with regard to the poor and suffering, working for and defending what is right and just, enduring suffering and persecution ("take up your cross daily"), etc.
During Lent, we give special attention to the need for prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. I've used the term "rightly ordered" before, and I will use it here again. To be clear, this means the correct order of things. Rightly ordered, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are expressions of interior penance.
In Matthew 6: 1-18, Jesus presents the proper order as coming from within. Some people get hung up on what He states not to do, but the point He makes is to DO them, but to do them from the heart, the interior.
Now that penance word. Penance expresses our contrition for our sins and our intention to turn away from sin and our attachment to it. Interior penance is best expressed through - you guessed it - prayer, fasting, and almsgivng.
So if the correct order comes from within, why does the Church insist Catholics focus more closely on these during Lent? Because we're human. We have a tendency to forget and/or neglect how to do something without practice.
That is why we say we are "practicing penance." Hopefully, if we practice well enough, we'll get good at it and begin to do it on our own. Perhaps recognizing the benefits of the outward actions will prompt the interior motivation I have been speaking of.
Okay, so today is Ash Wednesday. It's a day of fasting and abstinence. And there'll be more abstaining on Fridays during Lent. You probably get the "fasting" part, but "abstinence?"
Abstaining from meat is a form of penance. It is a very small sacrifice which reminds us of THE sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.
When the Church says "do not eat meat on Fridays during Lent", unfortunately it is the outward act which receives the attention. However, the Church is giving us this very small and very simple directive, a precept of the Church, to help us to recognize that we are to grow, to mature beyond a small mandate onto deeper expressions which spring from the interior conversion of the heart.
Enough for today. I hope you find this useful.