Emmitsburg Council of Churches

Five Mistakes Moderns Make About Lent

Father John J. Lombardi

1. Fasting and all that self-denial stuff is Unnecessary: Self-denial is one of the most important aspects of our Religion-and one of the most neglected, rejected, by the modern world. Why is this seen as passé? Because we live in a culture of comfort: if it feels good do it; if it doesn't feel good, avoid it. Remember our Lord's counsel (not optional): "If any one wants to be My follower, he must deny himself, pick up his cross daily and come after Me" (Lk. 9:23).Remember: when you deny yourself you affirm God.

2. I can do it myself: No, we need grace--God's help--to empower us, other wise we become perfectionist type-a camouflaged spiritual egoists; different than becoming perfect-(cf. Mt. 5: 48).and our Lenten practices become one big show off (cf. Mt. 6:2ff). This mythic mistake is one of modern man's typical ones: the more you selfishly you grunt and squint on your own without God, the thinking goes, the more you will accomplish. Just as we conquered the West we can conquer ourselves. Not so in the spiritual life. Here's how St Paul says it: "May the God of peace Himself make you perfectly holy, and may you, entirely, spirit and sol and body be preserved blameless for the coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ"-II Th 5:23.) You need God, and remember, as St Paul exhorts: "I can do all things thru Christ Who strengthens me". Ask for His supernatural Grace to overcome your bad habits, your addictions and inordinate affections-ask for His actual graces in a specific situation to avoid sin and choose Him. Remember the Mass: Thru Him, with Him In Him.

3. God loves me just the way I am…After all, I'm not a murderer. Yes, God loves you just the way you are, and He loves you so much to leave you that way ("Thank God" we should all say!).If you let Him He will show you are not a saint and that you can be perfected, what you need to work on, weed out and also what to embrace (see "examine"-a kind of "spiritual floss," below).St Paul reports: "Therefore, lest I get too elated, a thorn in the flesh was given to me…I begged the Lord that it might leave me…but He said to me: "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness'" (II Cor. 12:7-10) Remember: Holiness is lifelong.

4. Penance is Passé: Jesus calls us to do Penance-"Unless you do penance, you shall all likewise perish" (Lk. 13:3); and St John the Baptist cries: "Do penance, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand" (Mt.3:2). Our Holy Mother Church calls this Season before Easter a "penitential season." One of the main messages of Our Lady of Lourdes (apparitions to St Bernadette in 1858), was: "Penance, penance, penance." This means: we must try to make up for our sins. With every sin there is a punishment as part of justice (break a window, fix it; sin, do penance); and not everyone has fulfilled this (incl possibly ourselves!). So: it is a heroic act of mercy; love and wisdom to help the world to help atone for its sins. For Acts of Penance see below. Remember: "Produce good fruit which is evidence of repentance" (Mt. 3:8).

5. Lent must be gloomy-and therefore I'm not going to "do it". No: When we fast, pray and give alms, give up beer and bubble gum, soap operas or vicious driving, we should rejoice that: 1)we are converting to God; 2)doing charitable works for others; 3)living more sanely and gaining in self mastery. While doing penances you may not feel happy and light; but you may be joy-full, which means, accessing a "deeper spiritual river" of contentment in the Holy Sprit, a Grace of God that you are in accord with his Divine Will. Thus: everyone should "do Lent"! Remember-Lent is about a relationship, the most important one-with God and our neighbor.

Now, for more…

I went out with a couple recently for dinner. The wife asked me, foreshadowing Lent: "Is it better to fast--and possibly get irritable, or to do good works?" Good question! Look: Catholics are not either-or dualists, but both-and participants. Huh? Catholics believe in both fasting and giving alms, in self-denial which costs something and doing good works for others. It's not a pick or chose proposition, contrary to modern thought. We're supposed to be holistic holy Catholics, not minimalist moderns So…

It's Lent (the Old English word means "spring"), an annual ritual for not only cleaning up our act, but also assessing "How is my relationship with God, and with My neighbor?"…What can I do to repair them? Modernism tends to emphasize doing good works to the denial of fasting. The thinking is we should (and we should) fast from anger and bad behaviors, and, emphasize doing good works. Modernism dismisses, wrongly, fasting, apparently because: 1) it supposedly stunts our personality (makes us agitated); 2) allegedly halts charity; 3) is unnecessary-is an old fashioned thing. Christ and our Catholic tradition, however, emphasize fasting nonetheless: 1) You are called to sublimate your feelings -if you get agitated (you will) then you are to not inordinately focus on them; overcome agitations-thru true grit, prayer, charitable sublimation, "offering it up," make in solidarity with the starving all over the world; think of Jesus fasting in the desert… 2) embrace self-denial-this is crucial. For modernism tends to make a cult of feelings, especially of pleasure. Whatever is against these feelings is dismissed as wrong, stunting to one's personal happiness. Saying "no" to self is not popular these days, and thus is a modernist affliction upon ascetical living-even spirituality can become one more "I-centered" promotion of commotion. Think of it this way: When I say "no" to self (to food or drink or anger or entertainment) then I am saying "Yes" to God. Look at it that way.

Almsgiving: Christ recommends this because we sinners can worship Mammon-a god-like entrancement manifested in the seeking of possessions. We may describe some of today's average Americans as "homo consumeris-man-as-consumer". The fractured thinking: the more you consume the better off you are. When you consume you will be fulfilled. A spate of recent books highlights the targeting of children-and adults-as just this-homo consumeris. The book, "Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture," by Juliet Shorr, analyses how marketers pit children against adults, and how harmfully pervasive toxic advertising is upon us all). Christ's solution-subtraction is addition. The more you subtract- give away alms, then: 1) the more you will rely on God; 2)get used to practicing charity; 3)see in the "other"-the poor, Christ in His disguises Who is to be helped. Yes, it is good to give money to the poor or a charitable organization, but it is better to directly donate time and talents to the poor, to actually be and work among them. I heard recently of a Christian youth organization that went to India to work in Bombay. They were happy. But then they heard of the tsunami and switched their plans: they headed straight for the south of India to help the victims of the destruction…So: you can head directly into harm's way-to find the poor and help them-the homebound, the hospitals and nursing homes, the streets....Christianity is expansive, not repressive nor cliquish. Subtract to add.

Pray: subtract self and selfishness, to add God into your life and soul. St John the Baptist gives a "formula" on this subtraction-addition theme, about Jesus: "He must increase I must decrease" (Jn 3:30). Our most prized possession is the self. We live in a culture of narcissism, and within one of the most titanic vortexes of influence: self fulfillment, self esteem, self healing, and self help: Endless self, always seeking, promising and never delivering a total, salvific solution. And we bring and rely on that flawed self within our prayer, adversely affecting our prayer-relationship with God-the-Trinity. What we need is Grace--God's freely given Life within us. Remember, both-and: both our human efforts (to find prayer time, battle distractions and internal quagmires) and God's liberating Grace, to free us of selfishness, idols, and attachments. We must never fear to eventually disappear, and so "God is All in all" (I Cor 15:28). This will occur if we pray more deeply and lovingly: your soul will realize you don't need this tenaciously conniving, suffering-causing self.This Lent pray longer; more deeply (within your soul, not your feeling self); lovingly (with your sincere heart); meditatively (which means: Within: think about/Love Him). Begin every day with fifteen minutes of prayer and conclude your day with equal amount. Shave off self-fulfilling time (TV, spurious reading, recreation, video games, and harlequin novels) and give more time to soul-feeding-upon-God. Also: make a vigil-wake up in middle of night and pray for tsunami survivors, abortionists, victims of war in Iraq, lost souls: make the sacrifice (it's the Essence of our religion).. On praying: Breathe. Receive. Absorb (cf. I Tim 4:15). The saints did. So should you.

Fasting: Is for all Catholics, ages 21 thru 59. But let's not dumb down discipleship: if you can do it, do it- no matter your age! Fasting usually means eating only one full meal each day of Lent (excepting Sunday); meat may be taken, and then eating two small meals that together do not equal the main meal, and eating nothing in between meals. Sound rigorous? Think of starving children who have no option. Think of Our Lord Jesus and all His Sufferings for us. Think of the saints. Think of the concentration camps and abortion clinics: do penance for all sinners and liberate by your loving actions. And, by the way, gain self-mastery and lose weight! Try eating less during the day. Abstaining means not eating meat on Friday's of Lent. Remember, this is counter-cultural: we live in a culture of affluence-food abundance, super supermarkets and fifty foot salad bars. Proverbially stare in the refrigerator and wonder what to eat for minutes as you stand in your so-called suffering and "hunger pains". So much yet so picky you get finicky and forget your blessings. The poor do not have this choice-they are begging for scraps from our table. Scraps. A few weeks ago I saw a man rummaging thru a trashcan for food. So, yes, it's good to give up ice cream, cigarettes, liquor and chocolate for Lent; this is helpful-part of self denial, yes. But these are not the core of self denial-a greater sacrifice is what is essential-food or water itself, things essential to our body. Deserts and liquor are not essential-Jesus didn't' fast from these in the Desert. If you can't fast from food (because of dietary limitations) then deny yourself some other item natural to living (sleep, love, beauty, comforts) and undergo this for God. The point of all this is not heroic self denial for its own sake (this could be another form of self-ism, as the saints knew). We should rather do all this for the glory and love of God, and for our neighbor. Remember-good fruits are the result of penance. Because a certain ascetical practice helps us, it should help benefit and balance our relationship to God and neighbor (asceticism comes from the Latin-Greek root, askein, and "training"). Look: the life of holiness, the virtues and Lenten practices are not self-building but self-denying--for the sake of Our Savior and serving our neighbor….St Paul sums u the spiritual life: "I have been crucified with Christ. I live no longer I, but Christ within me" (Gal 1:20).


Prayer: If you do anything in Lent, meditate upon, and pray continuously, this passage: "Lord, lay your healing Hand upon me, for I have sinned." It intimates the Lord God can and will heal us-but we need to keep asking for His help. It also intimates we are sinners and need healing because of this. Keep asking, seeking and love…-Spiritual Focusing: What spiritual practices-no matter how difficult---do I need to cultivate in my relationship with God, which will promote love of God and neighbor? ..Avoid aversion: You have hang ups about fasting and mortifications ("mental or physical deaths of self"). Remember: often the anticipation is worse than the reality; offer it up; Jesus and the saints did, why not you? …Promote conversion: Keep remembering: all Lenten practices should aim at this-Love of God and neighbor.!….Work on what is manageable: pick a couple of personal disorders to work on, not the "whole mountain" -to address during Lent…Repeat with love….Love!: Don't forget-it's all about the "greatest Commandment-"Love the Lord with all your heart, mind and soul, and your neighbor as well."…Pray the Rosary-cultivate a more imitate relationship with the Mother of God. Begin with praying one decade a day. Pray with your family if possible…Spiritual reading: President Bush is busiest man on earth. But he reads the Bible frequently Do you? Begin with the Gospels, St Paul's letters) and read consistently. Read a classic of the spiritual life "The Imitation of Christ" or "Story of a Soul" by St Therese of Lieseaux, "The Spiritual Life" by Tanquerrey, or "Introduction to the Devout Life" by St Francis deSales)…Daily examine: each night review your day for faults and graces. Repair the next day…Year of the Eucharist: attend Mass more frequently, make chapel visit-adore Him: "I AM the Living bread come down from Heaven" (Jn. 6). Stations of the Cross: attend on Fridays, memorize and meditate upon these through the year.

Prayers: "Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of God, have mercy on me a Sin…Do your part and let Him do His part. Make it a beautiful spring!

And remember hat it's all about, "Your every act should be done with love" (I Cor 16:14).

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi