Caspar David Freidrich, “Cross Beside the Baltic” (1855)
“No evil dooms us hopelessly except the evil we love, and desire to continue in, and make no effort to escape from.” – George Eliot
Lent is a feast whose character is easy to mistake. Its pleasures are subtle, and its difficulties all too obvious; it can seem like nothing but a six-week stretch of pessimism if we focus on lamenting our sins at the expense of attempting to heal them. But to those who know it well, it is an essential, refreshing period of spiritual growth that prepares our hearts for the joy of Easter. It is important to have a yearly season of public repentance, to augment our normal practice of self-examination. If we are too proud to admit our need to change, but instead rationalize away our faults, we will turn ourselves to stone. The beauty of Lent is its ability to reorient us toward lasting happiness, and to clear away the detritus of vanity that accumulates on our soul throughout the year. Lent’s three disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving complement each other and help us to defeat our own worst instincts. By considering each in turn, we can prepare ourselves to celebrate this season to its fullest extent.
Nicolaes Maes, “Old Woman Saying Grace” (1656)
“Prayer does not change the purpose of God. But prayer does change the action of God.” – Rev. Chuck Smith
It is simply not possible to have a healthy interior life without engaging in prayer. If we know our own fragility, we will give thanks for everything we receive. If we care about a person, we will pray for their well-being. If we are sorry for the wrong we do, we will say as much to God. If we do none of these things, we are either lazy or delusionally self-involved, and either one of these options is a sickness with no easy cure.
Lent, with its focus on humility, can help us not just to pray frequently, but to pray well. It is dangerous to acquire a habit of rattling off a list of our desires and waiting for God to rain them down upon us. Even if we ask only for health, security, and peace (rather than vindication, acclaim, and a vacation in Majorca), we do God a disservice by reducing Him to a wish-granting genie. We are often told that “God’s ways are not our ways”, and instinctually we know this – we just prefer our way. By deepening the quality of our appeals to the Lord, we can come close to actually meaning what we say in the Our Father: “Thy will be done.” One way to pray with maturity is to tell God our problems without including the exact solution we’d like Him to provide. This can make our prayers feel more like a conversation and less like a grocery list.
Too often, we abandon prayer as soon as it seems we’ve gotten a “No” in response. It was probably a lot easier for Solomon to keep talking to God than it was for Job. But it is exactly when we’ve been denied that we can pray with integrity. We can ask that God be with us in disaster, ensuring that no misery is suffered in vain. People with a loved one who is terminally ill often balk at the idea of giving them a devotional book or even praying for them – they are definitely going to die, so what’s the point? Ash Wednesday reminds us that we are all equally terminal, and that this is not a calamity. Death is no reason to abandon our faith; it’s very much the opposite. And Lenten practice reminds us to be thankful for the good that comes out of pain as well as joy, since in life, both are inevitable.
JMW Turner, “The Bell Rock Lighthouse: (1819)
“Lenten practices of giving up pleasures are good reminders that the purpose of life is not pleasure. The purpose of life is to attain to perfect life, all truth and undying ecstatic love – which is the definition of God. Pleasure is not the purpose of anything; pleasure is a by-product resulting from doing something that is good. It is the pleasure-seeker who is bored, for all pleasures diminish with repetition.” – Archbishop Fulton Sheen
If we are accustomed to fasting every year on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, we might not realize how shocking this can seem to the uninitiated. Our culture approves of self-denial only in the context of a quest for physical beauty. Diets, cleanses, and exercise are met with congratulations, but detachment for its own sake provokes confusion and scorn – possibly because it’s harder to sell things to people whose prime motivation in life is no longer to make themselves more comfortable. Voluntary fasting unites us with the hungry around the world, and sharpens our mind and spirit, jarring us out of our usual contented torpor. But it also builds the muscle of self-discipline which, if smothered in instant gratification and indulgence, will atrophy, rotting us from within.
It’s too easy to compartmentalize discipline as a virtue for children. Parents force their kids to do chores not only to teach them how to perform the tasks (or to get free labor) but to help them grow into people capable of true, lasting happiness. Though children take parents’ assertion that work “builds character” as a glib non-response, they eventually learn that the values internalized during childhood chore-doing make their adult lives richer, more satisfying, and easier to navigate. They learn to do work without complaint, simply because it needs to be done; that their own comfort is not more important than anyone else’s; that leisure is a thousand times more enjoyable when they have actually accomplished something from which to rest. The importance of this development is obvious when we think of children, but we rarely remember to apply it to our adult selves. We prioritize our own contentment over the quality of life of exploited workers. We build temples of leisure in our living rooms and wonder why we’re still so bored. Our response to the mildest inconvenience mutates from irritation to anger, and we lash out at easy targets whose jobs depend on their meeting our insults with a silent smile. This poisonous temptation to pamper ourselves, and avoidance of even the smallest hardship, has its antidote in the fasting and asceticism of the Lenten season. Our nagging hunger confronts us with our dependence on God’s providence, builds up our tolerance of discomfort, and re-prioritizes spiritual wealth over material affluence.
John August Swanson, “Washing of the Feet” (1999)
“[God’s] love does not allow him to be indifferent to what happens to us. Usually, when we are healthy and comfortable, we forget about others (something God the Father never does): we are unconcerned with their problems, their suffering and the injustices they endure. Our heart grows cold.” – Pope Francis
Almsgiving, like prayer, should be a part of our life year-round, but during Lent we can help ourselves to do it more gracefully. It is too easy to perform charitable giving with a feeling of smug magnanimity, so pleased with our own benevolence that we look at the less fortunate mostly as opportunities to prove how good we are. Wedded to this superiority is the suspicion that these people are partly the authors of their own misfortune, and that they deserve only truncated, conditional compassion. If it was me in his place, we think, I would do better, work harder, make smarter choices. It is a lot easier to give someone money than it is to give respect as well. But as Father Greg Boyle puts it,“Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.” Only humble altruism has the power to enrich the giver as much as it does the recipient.
American society still echoes with the philosophy of our Puritan forefathers which held that material riches were a sign of God’s favor, that a person’s luck or misfortune was indicative of their inner worth. Modern values, both secular and Christian, are not as divorced from this instinct as we would like to think. We are so scared of not feeling in control that we need to believe that people who are poor or victimized are in some way responsible for their condition, that it’s not just random circumstance. We need to believe that we are in no danger of winding up in their position. But we are, and the weeks from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday confront us with that possibility. We are challenged to broaden our hearts and to take down the barriers we’ve erected between ‘us’ and ‘them’. If we can walk with Jesus through the Stations of the Cross, we can walk with the homeless, the criminal, and the other rejected of our world, and see them as our equals.
…But thou wilt sin and grief destroy;
That so the broken bones may joy,
And tune together in a well-set song,
Full of his praises,
Who dead men raises;
Fractures well-cured make us more strong.
George Herbert, excerpt from “Repentance”, 1633