The Catholic Thing
The Lenten Thing Print E-mail
By David G. Bonagura, Jr.   
Wednesday, 09 March 2011

Last year I lost a bet with a group of students. The penalty? I had to bring them Dunkin’ Donuts. After a few days of delaying tactics on my part, Lent arrived. One student asked when I would make good on my promise. She was stunned when I told her I would wait until after Easter. “Why?” she protested with disbelief and visible scorn. “Did you give up Dunkin Donuts for Lent?”

Her question reveals the prevailing notion of Catholic Lent: give up something we like, and hang on until Easter. Otherwise, we should just go about our daily business, with the treats and delicacies that we have come to see as par for the daily course. But if Lent is to have any real meaning and impact on our souls, it has to be more than a single repeated act of self-denial, as important as that act may be. The Church gives us a full season to accomplish the singular aim of Lent, and of the whole of Christian existence: conversion. Conversion requires self-denial, to be sure, but it also requires that everything we do and every aspect of our being conform to Christ. This is why Lent is a season – forty days, evenings, nights – spent in the desert with the Lord.

Living in the desert day and night is a cultural change for all of us with modern conveniences and busy social calendars. Weakened as we are by original sin, we are inclined to offer God a sacrifice of our choosing – sweets, alcohol, television, or some other non-essential item – but we do not even think to offer luxuries that have become normal to us: dinner or a movie out with our spouse and friends, purchasing new clothing or other items, morning coffee from Starbucks rather than the office kitchen. Rather than go the extra mile, we all tend to negotiate with God on our terms rather than His, for He demands too much of us.

But for conversion, for the true metanoia that is at the heart of Jesus’ ministry to take place, we have to allow God into all aspects of our lives, morning, noon, and night. In Lent, we are called to live differently, to “sacrifice” even what is dear to us, according to the original meaning of the word: “to make holy.” And when we make something holy we give it to God, removing it from human use.

The fasting regulations in force before 1966 were a powerful reminder of this: forty days with two half meals and one full meal, with abstinence from meat on Fridays. Of course, prayer and other devotions were (and still are) encouraged to orient fasting toward its ultimate goal: to die to self and to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:14). When lived with the proper spirit, one could not help but think about Lent: the Passion of our Lord, the sorrows of our own wounded pride, and the glory to come with the Resurrection.

Relaxing this fast to two days (Ash Wednesday and Good Friday) and allowing Catholics to choose their own penances has blunted the true force and character of Lent, which, to judge by the way we Catholics live today, is virtually indistinguishable from the rest of the year. We have traded the desert for the perpetual feast, and in doing so we forgot what the real Feast is all about.

The discipline of Lent – in addition to its spiritual benefits – also once served as a bulwark of Catholic identity in Protestant America as well. Now, bowing to the demands of secular religion, Lent has been reduced to a private, personal matter that cannot be seen in public. The weakening of our collective Lenten observances has coincided with the withering of our Catholic identity. And as our spiritual lives go, so go our public lives.

A renewal in Lenten practices can be a powerful catalyst in rebuilding Catholic identity. Pope John Paul II recognized the connection between identity and Catholic practice in Christifideles Laici, which Pope Benedict XVI recently quoted in own call to evangelization: “Without doubt a mending of the Christian fabric of society is urgently needed in all parts of the world. But for this to come about what is needed is to first remake the Christian fabric of the ecclesial community itself present in these countries and nations.” (emphasis in original)

Lent may well be the most difficult aspect of Catholic life to recover. The desert is never a choice destination. But just as the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Church, our sacrifice of prayers, fasting, and almsgiving for a full forty days, evenings, and nights can re-grow our Catholic identity, even though this fine wheat will be surrounded by chaff. The donuts, the movies, the restaurants, and the credit cards cannot – and should not – follow us into the desert. But if we can leave them behind, we will not only enjoy the real Feast more deeply, but also learn the proper perspective on the earthly feasts the Lord has given us.

David G. Bonagura, Jr. is Adjunct Professor of Theology at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, Huntington, NY.

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Comments (4)Add Comment
written by Lee Gilbert, March 08, 2011
To me our current situation is summed up every year when the priest says, "Please sit down for the reading of the Passion."

I'm sixty-seven. My wife asked me this evening if I remember the keeping of Lent before the regulations changed. Barely. I like to think I may have kept a stringent Lent once or twice in my life, but I am not sure.

But I do remember that at one time we were a far more penitential people, with no meat on Friday, a far stricter communion fast, ember days four times a year-three days of fast and abstinence. My parents kept heroic Lents, as had their parents and forebears.

Those were the days before we ran out of grace, when the lines at the Confessional on Saturday evening were full, and when occasionally from deep in the dark interior of the church would be heard sobs of remorse and repentance.

We would have Forty Hours or a Mission and everyone would show up. The Church would be packed. The missioner, typically a Passionist, full of zeal and holiness, would preach well, and the point of his preaching was to move the parishioners out of the pews and into one of the lines for Confession. He talked about Heaven and Hell, about sin and forgiveness, about the mercy of God, about staying in a state of grace. He was salt and light.

And something else, impossible to describe, maybe once or twice a year the Lord would show up in a very powerful way at Sunday Mass. Perhaps it was in the preaching, perhaps in a palpable aura of peace and beauty, but it was very real and noticed by everyone.

We were a pentitential people. Grace came down in showers.
written by Sharon Chapman, March 09, 2011
I loved your words. I liked the part about conversion as part of Lent. I will try this Lent to not only fast for the forty days but do something that makes a difference in someone else's life. Thank you listening.
written by debby, March 09, 2011
Thank you so very much, dear Prof! Until reading your post and Mr. Gilbert's fine comments, I had no idea why the Catholic Fast imposed by the Church is "so wimpy." Growing up an Evangelical/Fundamentalist, we NEVER fasted at all. As a late teen I went to an Assemblies of God/Pentecostal church. The whole (800-1000 people or so) congregation was encouraged to fast every single Wednesday (why Wednesday? maybe because Friday was "too Catholic?") and that meant NO FOOD, ONLY WATER for 24 hours. I knew teen-aged boys who were in sports who would stay up eating until midnight Tuesday nights then stay up and eat at 12:01 AM on Thursday.....those who participated in this "Body of Christ" fast were serious. Then 30 yrs ago the Holy Spirit moved me (a bit kicking & screaming I confess) into the Holy Roman Catholic Church, and my first Lent I discovered that "fasting is defined as 2 small meals and one regular meal with no meat." All I could do was shake my head! These Catholics! They smoke, drink, gamble, dance (all within the Church grounds!) and eat during a fast.....was the Holy Spirit SURE I belonged with this group? Then some Charismatic people explained to me that the guests do not fast while the Bridegroom is "with them" and He IS HERE in the Blessed Sacrament....oh brother! It took me awhile (3 yrs or so) to find out we were not Required to eat fish on Friday (fish is far more expensive than cheap chicken)....along this bumpy mountain climb on the way to the desert, Love did something. He drew me to fast. All year long....joining with Him in the emptying of myself, my desires, even if the fast for the day is so small-as the good Prof notes-as in offering up a 2nd cup of coffee at DD (the big SB is way too expensive) for a person who has asked for prayer. Love takes you into His desert, into His chamber and slowly penetrates the hidden, confused, lonely cave of the heart. He is Advent at Dawn, Christmas in the Morning, Ordinary Time at mid-day, Lent at Nightfall, Glorious Easter & Pentecost in the Stillness of the Night.....
so over the last several years, the Season of Lent has become harder for me to practice well, more intensely. Thanks to Lee's history lesson and personal family practice, he has both put to rest this gnawing irritation experienced in the "2 small 1 regular so as to feel hunger" and have given me better direction in fasting everyday this Lent. I am grateful.
written by Dave, March 09, 2011
Nothing stops us from keeping an heroic Lent, if we want to: the Church's laws and regulations around Lent, fasting, and abstinence set the minimum required to be in fulfillment of the command. We can fast more, and harder. We can ask for Confession any time we want, and if one's own priest is unwilling or unavailable, the good Lord will provide the right priest. We can do Stations on our own in our parish churches. We can keep Lenten collection boxes to give to the poor. We can practice the works of mercy with renewed vigor and commitment. We can pray more, for deeper conversion through detachment from deliberate venial sin and our favorite faults and attachment to God through lectio divina, study of Church doctrine and papal teachings, etc. etc.

It was easier before, I suppose, when the Church provided greater exterior structure; but the Holy Spirit is still active in the Church and, as the saying goes, the more we pursue the Lord, the more we find him.

May you have a blessed, fruitful Lent.

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