Wednesday, February 25, 2009
Ash Wednesday... Lent Begins
While some of you may be celebrating Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, on this side of the world, we've begun the season of Lent with Ash Wednesday.
One of the tertians told a funny story this morning: apparently a maintenance man was cleaning up the church sacristy before mass and saw what looked like pile of soot in a big ashtray, sitting on the shelf near the vestments. Concerned that the white vestments not get dirty, he disposed of the ashtray in the wastebin and headed out the door. When the priest came back into the sacristy to bring the ashes out for Ash Wednesday service, he was dismayed not to see them where he'd left them. After a frantic search, he found the pile of ashes in the wastebin, along with some rubbish from the office next door. When he dumped the ashes out and collected them back into the glass dish, he failed to see that there was also a broken toner cartridge in the rubbish. It seems that the crosses marking the parishioners foreheads that year lasted a bit longer than usual... like a whole week!
A bit more seriously, as we know, Lent is offered by the Church as a season of spiritual renewal in preparation for the celebration of Easter. While it's typical that people give something up for Lent, like chocolate, or ice cream, there are actually three traditional practices: fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. Each practice is intended to help us develop three key relationships.
In fasting, we are invited to gently master our body's appetites and urges, in order that our physical cravings do not run our lives. As one who loves food and for whom vanity is the only antidote for obesity, fasting is a tricky business. However, as helpful as it is to fast from foods we're overly fond of, or drink, we might also be creative in pinpointing some habit from which to refrain, for instance, gossip, or having to be right all the time, or being the one in control.
If you went to Catholic grade school, you may recall during Lent that we were given little cardboard banks and asked to save up our coins for poor children in Africa. Almsgiving is not only about giving charity to others in need, it is also about examining our relationship to our material abundance and security, and discerning how much is enough. During this economic downturn, many of us are being forced into a more austere lifestyle. But the season of Lent includes an invitation to choose living more simply as a path to happiness, as well as generosity. Almsgiving might also be about growing in awareness, not only that there are people who live in desperate poverty, but also in understanding the systems and economies that contribute to this unjust state of affairs.
And finally, prayer... the means through which we grow in and deepen the relationship with God. Taking time out for prayer can be as challenging as doing the other things we know to be healthy, but are nonetheless hard to make into habits (exercise, taking a day off...). And as much as people use the analogy of human relationships, suggesting that we do not neglect spending time each day connecting with our spouse or best friends, so how could we miss time with God-- it just isn't quite the same. Sometimes I think the challenge is that we have a narrow definition of prayer, and we do not count as prayer the kinds of activities that do connect us with our deep desires, our aspirations, our sense of beauty, or pleasure, or higher purpose. Maybe the challenge this Lent could be to identify the way in which we each find ourselves already communing with God, and simply building on this, rather than adding a style of prayer that doesn't already feel natural. Prayer happens any time we turn our minds and hearts to God, and is worth any extra intention we might bring to making space for it in our daily lives.
As St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits said, "may we use all the means available for us to make progress in the Lord," and may we all find this Lent a season that brings us closer to God, our neighbor, and our true selves.