The Pillars of Lent

Photo credit: Fr. Romain Marie Bancillon, Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, France.

The purifying Season of Lent is quickly upon us. We human persons are enabled to do something that lower creatures cannot, and higher creatures need not: to sacrifice and thus to learn to delay partial gratifications for even greater goods.  As Augustine preached about the martyrs, “It is not the wound that makes the saint, but the cause.” A “good Lent” is thus marked not by our endurance alone, but by the motivating reason we entered into penance and sacrifice—a greater imitation of Christ who is led into the desert by the Holy Spirit.  So, as we turn to pondering how we are going to fashion our Lenten practices this year, we are repeatedly exhorted to keep the three pillars of the spiritual life in mind: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church opens its wonderful section on prayer with a quote from St. Thérèse of Lisieux, gently reminding us that prayer is nothing other than “a surge of the heart; a simple look turned toward heaven …” (CCC §2558). Think about taking some extra time simply to be with the Lord in silence—just a few minutes with no reading, no Rosary, no preconceived expectations of what must happen. Just take an extra 5-8 minutes of being with God, whom you have been together with that day! “What is my overarching feeling right now? Why?” “Where do I feel most grateful—why and for whom?”  “Who is my ‘worst self’ and why do I allow myself to become that person?” Very real questions like these can help us uncover a truer self than the one we tend to wear throughout our normal routines, and in the demands of everyday living. Lenten stillness has a way of unmasking the world for its lies and even to denude ourselves of our masks and artificial selves. We need, of course, to meet God in our Morning and Evening Prayers; we need to see Jesus through the eyes of Our Lady in our daily Rosaries; and we must come to the enfleshed Lord in the Holy Eucharist as often as possible. But saving a few minutes each day to pray out of our feelings complements these more public rituals in a way that helps our hearts mend in honesty and grow in charity.

The news has recently been full of stories of young people suffering from (a most laughable term) “affluenza”—a word which has no medical equivalent, but is a typically American bourgeoisie excuse for those who feel they are above common decency, and the inalienable dignity of all those around them. The rich kid in Texas who was merely paroled for his drunken driving which killed four innocent victims, the privileged Florida medical student who maniacally berated her driver on a video that instantly went “viral,” or anyone of us who instinctually put our own immediate needs over the common good or love of neighbor. We are all too easily pleased, and all too quickly gratified. Fasting treats one of the basic foundations of human existence for what it is: eating is a social bond that enriches, and makes life more beautiful, but food is also a very ephemeral good that literally rots when used wrongly. When Christ fasted for 40 days, he did so, not to lose weight, or to prove his staying power, but to teach us how to make more room for the Spirit, to orient us to what is eternally important, and to give us the grace to use the goods of creation rightly.

We have all been blessed with existence, an eternal, rational soul, and all the individual gifts and relationships each of us enjoys. Yet, above all those blessings, we have also been made sharers in the person of Jesus Christ. None of these gifts, from the first to the last, is meant solely for us. They are gifts, and a gift’s very nature is to be given away freely, without restraint, and without qualifications. Perhaps this Lent, each of us could open ourselves to the Holy Spirit and ask him to lead us into the desert with Christ—the desert of self-gift, where we are no longer in-charge, relying proudly on our own talents, but led to that place of total availability and willingness to let go of whatever God asks.

Next month, there will be more on the Year of Mercy. If you have not yet read the Holy Father’s annual address to the Roman Rota—an annual allocution made to the Vatican tribunal—please do so here: Many of us have been praying that Pope Francis comes out, robustly and clearly, on the beauty of the sacrament of marriage as God has designed it: the faithful and fecund union between a man and a woman, imparting the grace needed for each spouse to lovingly and joyfully (hopefully) bring the other into heaven. I pray daily that Francis promulgates an Apostolic Exhortation, discussing how he came to call the “Synod of Bishops on the Family,” and what he expects the Church now to do to protect and promote the traditional Christian understanding of marriage. And, by extension, that he elaborates on how the Church, and her leaders, might better minister to those living in opposition to God’s plan. If you are looking for some good Lenten reading, and Francis’s strategy (or what may be perceived as a lack thereof), turn to his recent interview captured in The Name of God Is Mercy: A Conversation with Andrea Tornielli. It is full of anecdotes and insights into how Francis came to stress mercy, and what it might mean for each of us today.

Blessed Lent! And do be assured of my prayers!

David Vincent Meconi About David Vincent Meconi

David Meconi served as editor of Homiletic & Pastoral Review from 2010 to 2022.