As I am writing this article for God’s Field, we now find ourselves a few weeks into the Lenten season. That being the case, it is a good time to reflect a bit on the commitment we are called to make each year as a part of our Lenten discipline. Our Lenten practice primarily consists of three actions which help us to discipline our bodies and ourselves and therefore draw us closer to God: Prayer, Fasting and Abstinence, and Almsgiving. Each of these actions are an important part of the religious life of any Christian, but they must be entered into in an intentional way. Many of us are most familiar with the aspect of fasting and abstinence during Lent. In fact for the few weeks before Lent starts, I often hear many say, “What are you giving up for Lent?” For many years I have tried to give up sweets for Lent as a discipline and of course I abstain from eating meat on both Wednesdays and Fridays. These are certainly laudable practices as they are a discipline which allows my will to overcome the desires of my body, but in many ways they are really only a beginning to a true commitment to Fasting and Abstinence. If we look at our Lenten disciplines as spiritual training, then we can see that we must go beyond. When an athlete is training, he can’t just train for six weeks, do very little for the rest of the year, and expect to accomplish great things in any athletic events. Training is ongoing and in fact must increase as time goes by. So while it might be a beneficial discipline to abstain from desserts for a few weeks, we must also approach this discipline by examining what is going on in our hearts and wills beneath the surface.
In particular in all of our discipline we can examine them through the eyes of the seven deadly sins. These sins, which we might have learned in our early catechism classes, are: Pride, Covetousness (Greed), Lust, Anger, Gluttony, Envy (Jealousy) and Sloth (Laziness). In Catholic teaching these are considered the most serious of sins, because in many ways they are the root of all others. I also think that they are serious because so many times we fall into them so easily. This is especially true if we think about each of them in a broad way as it is intended. For example a sin like gluttony usually applies to food and overeating and surely for some people, myself included at times, this can be a problem. But gluttony can extend beyond this as well, to anything that we might indulge in: eating, drinking, or any activity that can overtake our lives, especially if it is at the expense of others, or at the expense of our spiritual life. In order to make the most of our Lenten practices, it is best if we do so in this intentional way. We need to spend a bit of time in thought and prayer concerning what we are doing and why we do it. While I am abstaining from some foods during this Lenten season, what other sort of gluttonies can I try to remove from my life? Do I spend too much time watching television, or bingeing on Netflix at the expenses of my relationship with my spouse or other family members? Am I more focused on my social media accounts than the person who is sitting right in front of me at the breakfast or dinner table? We can begin to see that maybe some food is not the only thing we should be fasting on.
If we begin to examine these questions and also try to remedy them, then the discipline of Lent can extend far beyond the 40 days of the season. While I can go back to eating desserts and stop my days of abstinence once the Lenten season is over, the remedy that I have applied to my other sins can be much more long lasting.
And of course this is true for the other Lenten actions as well. Lent offers us increased opportunities for prayer. Our parishes conduct Stations of the Cross, Bitter Lamentations or Penitential Services during Lent, so we can put aside at least one extra hour a week for prayer. And it is certainly a good thing to spend that hour once a week contemplating the Passion and Death of our Lord Jesus Christ, but if we do not enter into this practice more deeply, then once again when Lent is over, we will just mindlessly return to our life as before. But if we spend some time in contemplation on what we are doing and why, we can truly change our lives for the better. If we realize that Jesus went to the cross as a pure act of love for each of us, then we can also increase our loving actions towards other people. Again if we look at this situation through the lens of the seven deadly sins, we can increase our humility and decrease our pride knowing the Almighty God, the second person of the Trinity, came to earth and died a shameful death on the cross for love of me. We can put aside our anger, knowing the words of St. Paul, “God proves His love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)
These sorts of changes are also true in our Lenten practice of almsgiving. During the Lenten season we are called to focus special attention to giving, above and beyond the support that we normally give to our church and our local parish. Once again if we then focus on what we are doing, this giving can be the beginning of many other good things. First and foremost maybe we can realize that if we can give a little extra to our Church and our parish during Lent then this could then be our new normal for our giving to the building up of the kingdom of God within the P.N.C.C. It can also be the beginning of other good things as well. Through this giving we can begin to realize that we need to be less greedy and more generous in all of our dealings with others. We can also begin to live a life less focused on material objects and more focused on God and our neighbors. We can show more brotherly love and be less jealous.
My dear brothers and sisters, I encourage all of you to show a little more commitment during this season of Lent. Don’t just mindlessly go about the practices of the Lenten season, but rather make them opportunities to grow in your religious and spiritual life. In particular during this season when we are to focus on our sinfulness and the great love of Jesus Christ in going to the cross to forgive our sins, I encourage each of you to pray the prayers of General Confession that are found within the P.N.C.C. Prayerbook. These prayers (on pages 72-73) can truly help us focus in on what is important to consider in the season of Lent. And through them we can put aside our sinful ways, seek the forgiveness offered to us by Almighty God and lead lives which are ever closer to the way of Jesus Christ. These prayers are as follows:
Hymn before Confession
Moved by deep sorrow to our very souls, O God, for our guilt weighs upon us, sins are bending us down. Unto Your throne of mercy, we ever humbly trod, filled with great pain and sorrow, heirs of the sins of Cain.
Vainly we sought of this world fruitless consolation. Vainly we searched for comfort, remission of our sins. For there never is true peace where there are transgressions, neither is there happiness without God and conscience.
Being therefore overwhelmed by our misery, O God, when our guilt weighs upon us, sins are bending us down. So at Your throne of mercy, our knees we humbly bend, filled with great pain and sorrow, heirs of the sins of Cain.
“I confess to the Lord, God Almighty, One in the Blessed Trinity, Who by His Holy Spirit permeates the universe, but above all the human soul. I confess before Him and His holy Church, all the sins that I have committed in thought, word and deed. I confess that by my sins I have severed the ties uniting me with my Creator. I have disobeyed His Holy Laws; I have wandered from the path of righteousness, and thus brought injury to myself and my neighbor. (Strike your chest three times) By my fault, by my fault, by my own great fault. Moved to the depths of my soul, because of my many offences, I am heartily sorry; I firmly resolve to amend my life and with Your help, O God, I earnestly desire to follow the road of life shown me by Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior. Forgive me, O merciful God, and pardon me my sins.”
Although we say a similar Confiteor when we gather for Holy Mass and receive absolution, if we commit, during this season of Lent, to say this prayer often, especially before we retire for bed in the evening, then our Lenten disciplines can be just a beginning to living a more disciplined life, a life knowing Jesus better and living more closely to His way in the world.
I wish you all a disciplined and holy Lent that we may soon truly rejoice at the Easter to come.