It’s been almost a year since I officially became Catholic, and two extraordinary, life changing years since that amazing weekend when I made up my mind to join the Church.
Last week during Ash Wednesday mass it occurred to me that that particular mass was the beginning of my first real Lent. Last year I was wrapped up in the details of the Sacraments of Initiation and, I think, much of Lent got lost in the shuffle in preparing for baptism, confirmation and first communion. And, while I was kneeling there in church I remembered that, besides fasting and abstinence on the prescribed days, I was expected to sacrifice something, or “give something up” for the next seven weeks. Having not spent much time planning for the season I wasn’t sure what that something would be, and I vowed to sleep on it overnight with the hope that maybe something would pop into my mind.
The next day found a co-worker and me driving to southern Indiana on business. The conversation turned to Friday night’s fish fry at my church and my co-worker asked me, “Why do Catholics give things up for Lent?” I replied that it represented Jesus’ sacrifice during His forty days in the desert. But, then, it struck me that I really didn’t answer his question. There had to be an answer much deeper than that and so, after humming and hawing a bit, I embarrassingly admitted to him that I really didn’t know.
This was, to say the least, bothersome for me. I ought to have known and been able to give an adequate explanation straight off the cuff. I did remember from last year that the season of Lent for me as a catechumenate was focused on preparing for my renewal through baptism. Beyond that my knowledge was on shaky ground. I knew it would drive me crazy if I didn’t settle this and get it straight in my mind so I could rapid-fire it back to the next person who might ask me. I needed to get to the bottom of it.
Not wanting to admit my ignorance any more than I had to, I chose not to ask anyone for their opinion until I had done some research on my own. I Googled the subject and found several sites whose authors tried to give explanations but, with vocabularies much more advanced than mine, I didn’t understand what they were trying to tell me. I needed it to be dumbed down a little. I also noticed that different articles seemed to emphasize different reasons for observing Lent. I was getting more confused by the moment. Confused but also more determined.
Finally, on Monday I broke down and confided in some friends about my dilemma. One was as confounded as I was and couldn’t explain it any better than I did. A couple more offered their opinions in words I could understand. Their explanations sounded good but they still didn’t quite agree with each other.
That night found me away from home in a hotel room and in the usual uncomfortable hotel room bed. So, I had a few hours of tossing and turning in bed to toss and turn this idea of Lent around in my head. Getting nowhere, I rolled out of bed in desperation and knelt on the floor on one of the extra pillows and prayed to God for some relief – either let me sleep or let me figure out this Lent business in terms that make sense to me.
God didn’t disappoint me. And, it wasn’t sleep that I was afforded. It seemed that once I began praying for understanding I started seeing the big picture more clearly. It wasn’t long before the bits and pieces from all my sources started fitting together and making sense in a way that I knew I could defend:
- God doesn’t need us to give up anything for Him. But, He does want us to become closer to Jesus by emulating Him.
- Lent is a period of renewal, of dying to ourselves so that we may rise again, like Jesus died and rose from the dead.
- Lent is a time to shed destructive tendencies and commit to new, positive lives.
- Like Jesus sacrificed in the desert, we, too, should sacrifice through fasting as a form of self-discipline.
- Through this self-discipline, we become stronger and more successful at denying Satan’s daily temptations.
- That same self-discipline helps us become closer to Jesus by improving our prayer time.
- By focusing on our spiritual lives during Lent, we have the opportunity to reflect and seek reconciliation and do penance as a form of sacrifice in reaching that state of renewal.
- And, Lent is a period of increased charity (alms in the form of giving to those less fortunate), and becoming Christ-like by focusing on loving our neighbors and less on ourselves.
The experts may tell me there is more to it than this but, you know what, these are good enough answers for me, ones I think I can remember.
Satisfied, I climbed back in bed and the rest of my prayer was answered. I fell asleep.
On Tuesday, while at my office near Somerset, Ohio, I was still pondering Lent. I felt I had answered the “Why” question but I realized the “What” and “How” questions as they applied to my life were still unanswered.
Last September I posted The Cradle of Faith In Ohio and I mentioned the oldest Catholic church in Ohio is only a about a half mile as the crow flies from my Somerset office. I have stopped in to St. Joseph’s a couple times and prayed in the quiet solitude of that beautiful church. And, so, I decided I would stop again and pray for discernment of what I could do to make the most impact in my life and on the lives of others this Lent. Unfortunately, St. Joseph’s was locked up and I was bummed to think I would have to stew on this during the two hour ride home. I left St. Joseph’s via a different route than normal that took me through the half of the village of Somerset in which I had never been. To my surprise and delight I discovered another Catholic church, Holy Trinity, a beautiful church built in the mid-1800’s. And, it was open!
I walked in and took a pew about half way down on Mary’s side. I sat alone in the perfect silence of this old and beautiful church, contemplating Lent, and praying about what I should do.
Fifty minutes later I had my answers and my Lenten commitment was solidified. I could now get on with life and experience Lent the way it should be experienced.
Oh, I didn’t tell you what I decided to do, did I? Well, I’m going to follow the words of Jesus as recounted in Matthew 6:1-4 and 6:16-18 and “not blow the trumpet before me” and keep my plans for fasting and almsgiving a “secret”. Sorry folks.
Have a blessed and meaningful Lenten season!
(The post Why Do Catholics Give Things Up for Lent? first appeared in Reflections of a Lay Catholic)