The grace-filled season of Lent is upon us, but not many Catholic Christians would readily agree that it is a grace-filled season. Put any 10 Catholics in a room and ask them what Lent means (for them and the for the Church), and it is a real possibility that you will get 10 different answers. Some may view it as a prolonged time of dreariness and dread, whilst others who have had some good catechesis see it as a time for us to ‘reset’ our spiritual clocks which may have gone out of sync in the past year. One of the typical answers would be that Lent is a time to give up things one likes. While not completely wrong in itself, just saying this without qualifying our answer leaves many with hardly any semblance of neither joy nor purpose in this communal observance.
As I continue to grow (and hopefully to also mature) in my spiritual aspirations, it is becoming clearer and clearer that one of the greatest challenges that faces anybody intent on living the authentic spiritual life is the self. It comes in all forms and can even be easily justified by our sly human psyche. Lent and its observances tries to move us to recognize the various ways in which we have been listening and giving in to the self and the ego, while silencing that deeper spiritual core inside each one of us that calls us to make the choice for God and holiness.
Traditionally, the three areas which we are called to be more attentive to include prayer, penance (either in abstinence or fasting) and almsgiving (or other works of mercy). While these are undoubtedly good in themselves, partly because the self is diminished in the carrying out of these practices, they have to allow us to move slowly but surely in another motivation – and that is to purify our love of God and of neighbour.
If any of these practices are done without the purpose of growing in our love of God, we may well miss the point of our Lenten observances. What is the point of our spiritual lives after all, but that we become true and authentic lovers of God. God is love, and if we have not grown much in our love of God in our lives, dare we say that we are ready for heaven when our time on earth has come to an end?
In prayer, we are in purposeful communion with God. Yet, it is also a great challenge for many to do this on a regular basis. Many may want the goodness of God and his blessings, but how many of us want the God of goodness? When the major part of our prayer is centered on giving God a wish-list of our needs, we may have yet to be aware of how we may be lacking in our love of God for God’s sake. If we are only physically present at the Eucharist but with our hearts and minds hardly present, our love of God may indeed be lacking. In many of the parishes I have been serving, it has been a constant bugbear of mine to see many of the faithful leaving the gathering immediately after receiving Holy Communion, without waiting for the dismissal and final blessing. I have tried asking them in the most non-judgmental way why they leave early, but have never really got an answer that centered on the fact that they do not love God enough. Perhaps the truth is something that is so hard to admit.
In taking on penance during the season of Lent, we are practicing self-denial so that we can purify our love of God. When we consciously forego something we love and indulge in most of the time, we need to passively remind ourselves that our love and appreciation of God has to surpass our love and appreciation of earthly pleasures and delight. Each yearning and longing for what we physically forego should be translated into our yearning and longing for the God of love. When we are not mindful of this, we can easily turn our Lenten penitential practices into mere physical acts, wearing our efforts like badges of honour.
The love of God and neighbour is clear to see in acts of almsgiving. The Church’s constant call for us to have the “preferential option for the poor” calls us to see in the poor the human face of God who became poor for our sakes. Doing acts of mercy does something that opens parts of our hearts that may have been closed to the suffering Christ. We re-appreciate the fact that Christ lived with a real human suffering so that our own human suffering can have a spiritual dimension and as such be a cause for our salvation and the salvation of others.
This explains why we need Lent every year. If the love between human lovers who see each other in the flesh needs purification and re-commitment on a regular basis, what more our love of God whom we cannot yet see? The truth is that our lives are an amalgamation of a slew of difficulties and challenges, joys and moments of delight. We need to take a few steps back and see them all against the backdrop of God and his goodness, which we can easily take for granted. We don’t do this well enough, or often enough. Lent helps us to do this.