Ash Wednesday throws a bucket of cold water on the culture. "Remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return" is just about as heretical as you can be in our culture. For the culture far from being non-religious is in fact very religious and dogmatic at that. It embraces not the faith of Christians but the faith of Peter Pan. The faith of Peter Pan simply states that those who age will die. The secret to immortality then is to remain perpetually a child, wishing on a star and having a Nanny to take of you.
With all our nips and tucks and anti-aging formulas and creams we can at least fool ourselves temporarily into thinking we are perpetually young. The push toward being "trans-human" promises that we will fix our nature so as to never actually die. That's why smearing ashes on our foreheads and denying ourselves the pleasures of the flesh are considered morbid and hopelessly masochistic. I know Jesus tells us to accept the faith like a child but he doesn't extol childishness. In fact he tells us to "deny our very selves" in order to find ourselves. Quite different than wishing on a star.
Lent is the time for us to mature a little bit more, to stop creating false dependencies in our lives and learn to rely more on the Word of God. Even though we live in a most prosperous society we are still full of anxiety and worry. Which makes this an opportune moment to embrace the Lenten spiritual triad of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
Our prayer has the effect of softening our hearts and making them more receptive to receive God's love. Without prayer we lack a basic communication skill for our souls. How can we really know God and His will without prayer? There are two classic definitions of prayer. The one in most catechisms comes from St. John of Damascus (eighth century): "Prayer is the raising of the mind and heart to God." The other comes from St. Clement of Alexandria (third century). He defined prayer as "conversation with God." The biggest obstacle to prayer is that we just don't find time to do it! So it requires making a daily "appointment" to spend time in prayer, vocal prayer and mental prayer. Vocal prayer like praying the Rosary, reading the Psalms or Bible, and other devotions and Mental prayer which means taking even a small amount of time and spend it in silence.
Fasting too is a discipline and requires a plan so that it may be executed fruitfully. Fasting has its health benefits, but it's not the same as dieting. Fasting is something spiritual and far more positive. Fasting is a spiritual feast. It does for the soul what food does for the body. Fasting helps us enjoy the things of this world and unlike the faith of Peter Pan we simply do not wish on a star for them but we realize where they come from, who is the Giver of Gifts. In effect fasting helps us enjoy the good things of this world as they were intended.
The body always wants more than it needs. So we are called to exercise self-mastery over our appetites. There are many things we can fast from since we all have many appetites. For some in addition to food it may mean fasting from technology, all those video games, and Internet sites. For others learning self-mastery over the sexual appetites requires fasting. Still for others it may come in the form of refraining from shopping. Fasting helps us deal with our selfishness and lack of self-control.
Almsgiving is really a combination of prayer and fasting. That is why the scriptures consider it even more beneficial than just prayer or fasting. Almsgiving is a prayer in that we are praying that our giving makes things better, aids another toward salvation. It is also a form of fasting in that it requires some sacrificial giving, some real effort. During Lent we will have opportunities for almsgiving, which will require sacrifice on our part. We live high so we must give high as well.
Prayer, fasting, almsgiving certainly are affronts to the faith of Peter Pan particularly the requirement for a Nanny to provide for all our needs. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving remind us that first God cares for us and secondly He has given us the means to care for ourselves. And the secret to immortality, well it is not so secret: "take up your cross, daily, and follow Jesus Christ".
Love, Fr. John B
P.S. If this sounds familiar it is! It is a reprint from 2010 but next week on to a new ranting reflection on something!