Do you think of Lent nervously wondering what you should be “giving up”? Thinking of this time as a farewell to chocolate or some other guilty pleasure for six weeks. Clenching your jaw or fist at the notion of “penance”? Don’t despair!
It’s all too easy to resist doing something hard, but when you think of the benefits you can gain for yourself and for others as well, the “Spring Cleaning” Lent entails can be well worth it. It’s not just a matter of “no pain no gain”.
Lent gives each of us a special opportunity to draw closer to our Lord through three essential components of sanctity: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Maybe you think that only saints can do this, especially that fasting part! However, keep in mind that we are all called to be “citizens in training” for heaven, which means being saints in training!
“Saints in training?” you might think, “no way that works for me!” Hold on! If you’re struggling with your own imperfections and sinful inclinations, rest assured that you’re not alone, by any means!
So did the saints themselves, many of them all their lives. They well understood that the journey to heaven and eternal bliss with God and other fellow human beings is a marathon, not a sprint!
Two notable quotes from St. Paul come to mind in this regard: the first, when he wrote in his letter to the Romans of his own internal conflicts from original sin between his Godly and ungodly desires (Rom 7:15-23); and the second, his advice to the Philippians to work out their salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12), meaning not to take it for granted as something they can achieve without God’s grace throughout their earthly pilgrimage!
Yet there is an intriguing aspect to this endeavor that we see in the Ash Wednesday Gospel reading (Matt 6:1-6, 16-18). Our Lord advises us not to walk around penitentially all “Gloomy Gus” (or “Debbie Downer”) just for everyone to see. Truly, such displays of sanctity are just that: displays.
Whatever small benefit they may offer those engaged in such hypocrisy in the approving eyes of others who cannot see their actual intentions, such showy gestures offer one nothing in terms of advancing in spiritual matters.
Our Lord, as He implied in this teaching from His Sermon in the Mount, is neither impressed nor fooled by such actions. As we read in the Old Testament in the first book of Samuel God judges us not by outward appearances but rather by what is in our hearts (1 Sam 16:7).
In that sense one’s “reward” Jesus speaks about in the Ash Wednesday Gospel would be meager indeed. And it misses the point of fasting entirely, that it can turn sorrows whether real or fake, into joys!
One of the Doctors of the Church, St. Basil the Great, the 4th Century Bishop of Caesarea (in what is now modern Turkey), in his stirring homily on Fasting spoke precisely to this point when he said "Do not be sullen while you are being healed...seeking the glory that comes from appearing to be abstemious. For there is no profit in trumpeting your good deeds, nor any gain in advertising your fasting. Things that are done for outward show do not yield any fruit in the age to come, but terminate in human praise. Run with gladness to the gift of the fast. Fasting is an ancient gift, which does not grow old or become outmoded, but is ever renewed and flourishes with vigor."
St. Augustine summed up the benefits of this "gift" quite well in a sermon on prayer and fasting when he said that "Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one's flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, quenches the fires of lust and kindles the true light of charity."
And the famous "Angelic Doctor" of the Church the great St. Thomas Aquinas similarly wrote that "fasting is useful for the removal and prevention of sin and for raising the mind to spiritual,[heavenly] things."
In being born with original sin, each of us has a desire for things that are either are not good for us (such as adultery) or are not good when not in moderation (such as over-eating, drunkenness, gossip, gambling, etc.).
Parents trying to discipline unruly toddlers or teenagers can well relate what it means to trying to lay down the law about something for the good of a child. And yet, each of us struggles with that child within ourselves as well, whether he or she be 3 or 13!! “No means no” in giving up a bad habit, right?
Uh…not always..not by any means! Each of us “wants what we do not want”, to paraphrase St. Paul in his letter to the Romans, as mentioned earlier. Note however that in acknowledging his own unruly nature he also thanked our Lord for helping him to deal with it (Rom 7:25)!
Jesus can do the same for us with His graces. When we fast and pray, we are giving that desire for His support a well-needed “push”. The 70’s rock band the Doobie Brothers titled one of their albums “What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits”. Just as vices can become habits, so also can virtues if we’re willing to make an effort to develop these instead.
St. Basil also reminds us in the homily mentioned earlier not to "define the benefit that comes from fasting solely in terms of abstinence from foods. For true fasting consists in estrangement from vices."
Lent calls on us to fast not necessarily just from food, but from whatever habit or inclinations are keeping you from getting closer to God. It’s not just about “giving up” chocolate, beer or wine, or other such things. For many of us, it might be about giving up gossip that turns malicious more often than not, for example, or some other sort of emotional baggage such as jealousy.
Fasting can help you realize what your limits really are. You think you can’t live without ice cream, soda, pizza, etc., much less constantly checking Facebook on your iPhone, gossip, envy, etc? You can, more than you think!
There is a popular phrase used in 12 step programs “Let go and let God” that applies well in Lent, believe it or not. “Giving up” something that might be impeding your relationship with God can give Him more room to work in you!
Afraid of how you’ll fill that need you thought was satisfying? Ask God to come into your heart more in prayer, for example, or in spiritual reading. Giving up a meal and giving the money to a charity can remind you of those in need around you. Fasting can help our Lord help you with that “Spring Cleaning” in your soul.
And in so doing, you just might find there’s more peace and joy in your life than you expected in sorting out what is and isn’t important in life. Grudges, for example, only weigh us down much like that box of chocolate frosted donuts for someone who is way out of shape.
Envy brings most of us only increasing anger or despair over some situation. Unchecked avarice for wealth or power can create a life of lies and guilt over various compromises and “Faustian bargains”.
We read in numerous places in scripture of the importance of a clear conscience and the peace following God and His Commandments can bring. A good example can be found in the very first Psalm: “Blessed is the man who hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly… But his will is in the law of the Lord….And he shall be like a tree which is planted near the running waters, which shall bring forth its fruit, in due season” (Ps 1:1-3).
Likewise, the prophet Jeremiah says that one is cursed whose heart turns away from the Lord, that he will be as a shrub in the desert whereas one who trusts in God will be as the tree mentioned in Psalm 1 that will always be fruitful (Jer 17:5-8).
This is no “pie in the sky” promise, of course! God has not promised any of us an easy time of it in this world, as He indeed spoke in his earthly ministry about our need to carry our own crosses in following Him (Matt 16:24).
But in keeping close to our Lord, as my godmother used to say “the bad He can make good and the good He can make better”, meaning that when we offer up sufferings to Him and ask for His grace and strength in dealing with them, He can make them more bearable.
In short, the joy from removing some distraction or bad habit that can keep you from bringing God more fully into your life allows Him to then give you more of His comfort, strength and peace, which you can hopefully then share with others.
And in building up your "muscles" of self-denial, you just might find God is giving you more of that strength and equanimity you'll need in dealing with trials and tribulations, whether now or down the road!
If you approach your fasting with a contrite heart for your sins, it includes repentance. Another great saint, St. John Climacus, once called repentance a contract with God for a fresh start in life. Make this season of Lent a fruitful one for whatever fresh start you might need!
We here at Our Catholic Prayers wish you all a blessed Lent and Easter to come!