By Fr. Matthew Kauth
Lent is upon us. How shall we engage it?
Ironically the word “lent” finds its origin in springtime as a description of the time in which the daylight grows. I say ironically, because while the daylight might be increasing, the thought of engaging Lent feels like darkness. Lent does not usually fill us with the same excitement as daffodils and warm breezes. Why not? Because we do not wish to change, and we do not wish to die. Lent does not seem to be a harbinger of beauty and light but one of judgment. Lent says to us that we are not right. As such, we normally keep Lent at arm’s length.
We are willing to do something but best that the something remain sort of indistinct and hazy. We will do something reasonable, something akin to a New Year’s resolution; we will do something that fits into our wellness plan. We are willing to admit theoretically that we are not our “best self” and so to improve this life we might engage in “penances” to curb certain tendencies in our behavior that hinder wholesome living. As such, we might cut things from our diet like sweets or reduce the amount of red meat we eat. We might tap the breaks on the third glass of wine and hit the snooze button fewer times. We are willing to reduce our time commitment with social media and go for a walk as the temperatures rise. It will all be slightly uncomfortable, but it is for a good cause. Forty days. We can manage that. When Easter arrives, it will be business as usual.
I do not for a second think that the above admittedly cynical description is part of our conscious decision. Yet I believe firmly that such considerations make background noise, motivated by a fear of conversion. I would also venture to say that there is a part of us longing for a change and thus cautiously eager for this season. So then, how do we begin?
Lent must begin with proper vision. The very word we use for conversion is metanoia which means a second thought. I have to rethink before I can redo. We must look at our lives and ask the honest question: “For what do I live?” COVID has unmasked us, ironically, as people who do not principally live a supernatural life. We live our natural lives and these we must protect at all costs. How many of us can say with St. Paul: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me (Gal. 2:20).”
Christ did not come to give us more of our life but to give us His life. He didn’t come to save us from suffering but to offer us life through suffering. Lent, properly engaged, threatens the life of the “old man”, that is, the natural life in favor of the supernatural. It reorients us. Our natural life must be at the complete disposal of the Christ-life. Hence, first we must see. We must have a change of mind. For what do I live? How do I spend my most precious commodity: time? On whom do I spend it? What motivates my actions?
Once we see how this is the case, we must engage. Engagement is the conversion (literally the turning or reorientation). Often, we do not wish to see because we do not wish to engage. As C.S. Lewis once quipped, the test results have come back from the doctor, but we do not read them. We do not wish to know the prognosis. Ignorance leaves us in peace.
But we are not at peace. Not the real peace which comes from the tranquility of order in our lives. Christ’s peace reigns only in souls that have surrendered to Him. Once done, the vicissitudes of life (and there have been many this year for all) no longer have the power to steal our peace because they cannot remove that for which we live: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, for thy sake we are killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:35-39).” If life is Christ then death is gain as St. Paul concludes. Let us begin that death. Let us die before we die. This is what mortification literally means.
How do we do so?
Christ’s first words were “repent.” Change your sight. Grow in light as the days this season grow in light. Once you begin to see what must be done, engage it. How? Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Why? Because these three penances are a direct attack on the ways in which you and I have lived for another life which is not the Christ life. They are the weapons against the world, the flesh, and the devil.
- Prayer: Prayer is spending our time on Him. It is the daily redeeming of the time spent with the One we claim to desire to have for all eternity. Prayer reorients us daily. We adore the only One worthy of adoration and in so doing realize that we were not made for ourselves but for Him. Adoration leads to praise and gratitude. It results in further sight. As we see ourselves in truth, we beseech Him for His mercy, both for ourselves and for those in our care. We petition. Petition unleashes divine power.
Can we commit to an increased time with Him in prayer? Can we make more visits to the Church to kneel before His Eucharistic presence? Can we spend time in lectio divina rather than lectio media? Prayer orients us to God and away from the devil.
- Fasting: Having a human life means satisfying the needs for daily bread. The body cannot be neglected entirely, but it easily becomes the priority. When we fast, we order our lower desires rather than simply deny them. We subordinate them in view of the end of human life which is life with God. When asked if He had eaten, Christ said to His disciples: “My food is to do the will of my heavenly Father (Jn. 4:34).” It does not mean that He never ate. It simply means that the legitimate needs of the body were subordinated to His love for His Father. Fasting orients the body to God and away from the “flesh.”
- Almsgiving: From whence comes our security? Perhaps a more fundamental way of looking at this question is one from St. Paul: “What do you have that you have not received (I Cor. 4:7)?” Existence, life, breath, the world of goods around us – we did not create any of this. We cannot hold it in existence. It is the nature of a creature to be dependent. We cannot have security. It is a lie. The widow praised by our Lord in the Gospels “gave all she had to live on.” She spent it. And He provided. How we use our resources as stewards is a matter of genuine discernment and is not the same for all. Yet all must give alms in a way in which it extracts from us the feeling of security. Almsgiving orients us to the Giver of all good things and away from the world.
This is Lent. The time the days grow with light and heat not simply because of spring, but because we look to the Light of the world and see the truth about ourselves. We engage in penance so as to convert to that light, the heat of which warms our faces with the very love of God. This is springtime in the soul, and we are all in need of it. Be generous. Be courageous. It will have its earthly rewards and may even orient us rightly for eternal rewards.
Fr. Matthew Kauth