At the writing of this article, it is still cold and wintry. We are liturgically still in Ordinary Time; but I want to turn to the upcoming season of grace that we call Lent. The associations I have in this season are ones of ‘doing without things’, a sort of enforced limitation that exists partly because I recognize a need for improvement in some area or the need to abstain from something that has become a little too ‘necessary’ to me.
However, one of the associations that I like best about Lent is the connection our English word has with the German word for spring: Lenz. At first, it seems an odd connection; but on closer examination, we can see interesting parallels: in the spring, the sap starts flowing. A good gardener prunes the bushes so that the new energy goes where it can do the most good and produce the most fruit. Just the same, when we fast and give up things: we prune away from our lives the unnecessary branches that just take the sap and use it only on fruitless leaves. We give up, we fast.
We also grow, though. The almsgiving part of Lent, while very sacrificial, also has the sense of going beyond the ordinary. We try to expand the horizons of our love beyond the family and our friends, beyond duty, beyond the expected. We try to reach out to the forgotten, the distant, and the silent needy that are so marginalized by the ‘warp and woof’ of our commercialized perspectives as to be rendered mute. When we used to fill our mite boxes or, today, fill our rice bowl boxes, we are making ourselves concerned about those who do not make themselves known to us. If we had no Lenten discipline, we could easily forget the people who do not appear on our doorsteps to elicit our compassion. These silent and invisible ones do have a claim on our concern but they can easily be avoided in our breakneck speedy ways. We proclaim these people our brothers and sisters even though we do not know them at all. Yet they still exist and I am still responsible for them.
Therefore, Lent is not just a time for pruning and cutting away the unchristian and dead parts of our lives that cannot communicate the Divine; but it is a time of growth symbolized by the generosity of Almsgiving.
This more positive part of growth, joined with the negative pruning image, can together be seen in the third way of celebrating Lent and our own growth in Christ: prayer. We normally increase our times of prayer during Lent. In order to do this, we have to cut back on something since the added time is required. For example, instead of sleeping a little later, I get up for daily Mass. Or, instead of watching TV, I spend the time reading a spiritually themed book.
One cannot emphasize enough the importance of real spiritually nourishing input for the Catholic soul adrift in these secular times. If we look on what provides input of thought and motivation in our world, we can very easily and very understandably be alarmed. So much is unreligious, or even antireligious, in the content of our world. The movies we see, the TV we are exposed to, the commercialism of the internet as well as the loss of real occasions of spiritual and religious times (gone are the family rosaries, the processions with the Blessed Sacrament, the prime-time programs like those of Bishop Sheen). All this makes for a dangerous secularization that all but suffocates the spiritual self.
The positive is that because of our religious freedom, there are plenty of books, religious programing (Net TV and EWTN) and opportunities to engage in religious conversation (not to mention the fact that parishes are free to program whatever they want regarding the Faith) that makes it possible to create a counteroffensive to the casual drift of our times.
However, the motivation, the time, and the effort must be there; and here is where the gift of Lent achieves its most generous opportunity. We can exercise the will concerning the spirit and devise a program of redirection and growth using the traditional categories of Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving, which can allow God to ‘save’ us from the stultifying effects of the desert landscape of the earthly city.
Lent can truly be a springtime of growth for all of us!