A few Lents back, I was still working as a reporter at the diocesan level. One of the challenges of diocesan reporting is to continually find new angles to stories that come up on a pretty cyclical basis, and Lent is no exception. That year, I decided to talk to a handful of everyday Catholics and get their personal take on what the season of Lent -- and its disciplines -- mean for them and how it plays out in their daily lives.
My hope was that I wouldn't just have a series of articles cataloguing what half a dozen people had given up that year -- chocolate, TV, foul language, interrupting. But what I ended up getting from my interview subjects was far better than I'd hoped for; it was an impressively diverse cluster of reflections that are still providing spiritual encouragement years after the fact.
There was Joyce, a parish RCIA instructor whose job was to guide people into the Church year after year, culminating in Lent and Easter. Against this backdrop, she encouraged candidates and catechumens not to look at the Lenten discipline of fasting as simply giving something up, but of discarding something about oneself that causes separation from God.
On some level, this is just a minor change in perspective. "I'm giving up excessive Internet browsing because it makes me fat and lazy" vs. "I'm giving up excessive Internet browsing because it detracts from time that could be spent in prayer, etc." Both acknowledge a form of gluttony. One is more focused on how the relationship with God fits into it.
Another take on this perspective is that an ungodly part of a person dies during Lent so that the person may be resurrected anew.
Of course, along with death and resurrection as recurring Lenten themes come sacrifice and suffering. These elements came to the fore when I interviewed Justin, a recent college graduate who'd majored in religious studies.
Justin's thinking on Lent was closely tied to his admiration of the writings of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI. He cited an essay that describes the love of Christ as a love that went all the way because it refused to return violence and instead poured itself out completely. In the sacrifices of Lent, we learn to show God a love that weathers sacrifice. And again, we die and rise again. In short, Lent is learning to love like Christ.
By this point, Lent sounds like a great opportunity to completely reinvent oneself ... "I'm going to take all those petty, indulgent, sinful things about me, and I'm going to purify myself by casting them off! Sure it will hurt, but the suffering unites me with Christ and allows me to love more perfectly!"
And that lasts about two days.
When I spoke to Father Joe, a local pastor, he raised the point that Lent is also about coming to terms with one's own weakness and dependence on God. So often Catholics head into Lent with great intentions of penance and self improvement, but they get discouraged by their inability to adhere to their own commitments.
Father Joe said he urges patience with oneself as part of the Lenten discipline. Just as the very act of fasting weakens us and reminds us of our need for nourishment, the challenges of Lent remind us that only by the grace of God can we do anything.
The frustrations of Lent came to light in an interview with Charity, a high school senior and aspiring photographer. She catalogued her own Lenten complications of years past, such as woefully underestimating her addiction to coffee or the question of what a vegetarian is supposed to do on a Lenten Friday. In spite of these troubles, the themes of Lent still loomed in her life. Several of her friends had met early deaths, and this suffering had prompted her to make her own deaths and rebirths.
Charity's approach to Lent itself was novel. She took it upon herself to reach out to her fellow students, the marginalized and friendless. They would look back on high school and remember that at least one person was nice to them, she insisted.
At first, this seemed to fall outside the realm of typical Lenten disciplines. She wasn't exactly fasting from something. But then I realized that Charity had somehow managed to leapfrog to a different level of Lenten observance. After all, if the sacrifice of Lenten disciplines are supposed to unite us with Christ and help us love more fully, then it follows that we would act on that love by reaching out to other people with charity.