Lent begins late this year (on March 6th), so we have a little time to do some planning with regards to the oft spoken-about concern: “What am I going to do for Lent?” Lent is a time to get our spiritual house in order beginning with the things that influence our bodies.
There was a time in the Church’s history that people engaged in some pretty tough forms of sacrifice: using whips and other instruments of administering pain, or at least discomfort, to the body. The idea behind these was to ‘mortify’ the body—that is, to put it into subjection to the soul. “Mortify’ literally means to ‘kill’ the desires of the flesh.
The great saints have often engaged in these extreme penances that sometimes were factors in their early deaths (St. Anthony of Padua died at 36 years of age). I don’t choose to look down on these efforts. These saints were incredibly generous to the Lord in their sacrifices.
But I am suggesting doing things that require great sacrifices, but that will actually add time to our lives on earth; not just to enjoy life, but to have more time to serve the Lord. Could you imagine how much good St. Anthony could have done if he had lived to 80 or even 90 years of age! I remember a few years ago a young seminarian coming to me with a question. He asked me if I knew where he could purchase a ‘hair shirt’. Hair shirts are shirts made of a kind of burlap that, when worn by the naked skin, caused terrible discomfort and could lead to open wounds on the skin. It was used previously to mortify the flesh and provide a sacrifice that someone could do for God. I asked him why he wanted to use one. He replied that he wanted to show God how much he loved Him by offering the pain as a sacrifice. I told him that the hair shirt was not used anymore because it caused serious health problems. I suggested instead that if he wanted to offer God a sacrifice, he should join a gym and begin an intensive training course to become healthier so that he could serve God longer and in a better way since he would be healthier and God would be served better. The hair shirt might curtail his service unnecessarily! He went away saddened since he had sort-of romanticized the hair shirt worn by the great saints. He did not join a gym!
My main point in using this example is that we should not hurt the body that God gave us, but we can train it to serve God better. Lent, for some, is a time for self-improvement. This is a misunderstanding of Lent. You can improve yourself, but always for the honor and glory of God, not for our own pride or good looks. There is a difference between fasting and dieting even though the end result is the same.
But at the same time, it does not mean that what we sacrifice for Lent need hurt us or disrupt the work we are to do for God. Somehow, we must yoke together the goal of the honor and the glory of God and the disciplining of the means to that end. The discipline must never contradict the goal of our Lenten striving.
Finally, the one thing we can learn about the extremes that the saints employed is to have great generosity of heart. They were willing to give God everything, even to the point of their health and comfort. We have to try while keeping in mind the discipline of our methods not to succumb to the spirit of our age that places convenience and comfort almost as ultimate values. We have to always try to go a little further in our sacrifices so that we constantly challenge ourselves to leave our comfort zones and give God as much as we possibly can.
Lent is really a joyful time when we can give God everything that we are. We have but to give Him what we value most in life since all comes from His love for us anyway!