By Bishop James Conley
This upcoming Wednesday, March 6, is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the holy season of Lent.
The season of Lent is a time that we, perhaps, enter into begrudgingly. We may think of all of the things that we have to do during this season, including our personal sacrifices, where we “give up something for Lent,” which may be the reason that we enter into it with hesitation.
Lent is, indeed, a penitential season. Liturgically, we don the rather somber, violet vestments. We meditate upon the Passion of Christ, meditating more intentionally about the pain and suffering that our Lord endured to win our salvation. We incorporate into our lives the three traditional acts of of the season of Lent: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
Lent is certainly about renunciation and detachment, but we detach ourselves from the things of the world and our earthly desires so that we can be attached to the love that Jesus Christ wants to give us.
Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are not ends in themselves; they are means to grow closer to Jesus.
During the retreat for all of the bishops of the United States, the retreat master, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher of the papal household, said: “Christian asceticism, therefore, is substantially much more than renunciation. It’s much more than self-inflicted suffering. It means putting off the dirty rags of our sinful nature and restoring in us the beautiful image of God, like removing the rust to let the real metal shine again.”
These images that Father Canatalamessa presents concerning Christian asceticism also applies to the purpose of our ascetical practices during Lent. It is a time for us to become the people that God has intended us to be—images of himself.
The word asceticism comes from the Greek word askesis, which means “practice” or “exercise.” In its ancient use, it was a word alluding to the necessary practice and exercise that athletes performed to achieve their athletic goals.
Thus, asceticism translates well into the vocabulary of the Christian spiritual life. The Christian spiritual life consists of daily practice and exercises leading to our goal of everlasting life.
But, unlike athletes, achieving our goal of eternal life is not merely up to us. Runners preparing for the big race owe their success or failure on their own efforts. In the Christian spiritual life, all of our efforts—our practice and exercise—simply dispose us to the work of the Holy Spirit.
The additional spiritual exercises that we take on during Lent are not done to prove how tough we are, but to make space in our lives for the Lord to heal us, strengthen us, and build our trust in him.
The three traditional acts of prayer, fasting and almsgiving are means to make space for the Lord in our lives.
An increase in prayer is really a desire to renew the most important friendship in our lives: our friendship with Jesus. This is a friendship that is to last forever. Giving the Lord time in prayer is never a waste of time.
Prayer opens up our minds to hear God’s voice, and opens up our hearts to love him and our neighbor in a greater way.
When we fast we build up the virtue of self-mastery, which disposes us to the good things that the Lord wants to give us, and tempers our desire of the sensible things of this world. Fasting over good sensible things, like food or drink, gives us power over the temptation to sin, and allows us to rejoice in what is true and good.
The practice of almsgiving allows us to give of ourselves and get out of ourselves. This includes assistance to those who are wanting of the basic necessities of life. It can also include being more attentive to the needs of others, including our families and friends, but also the worried, anxious and depressed.
St. Irenaeus said “the glory of God is man fully alive.” The holy season of Lent gives us the possibility of so much renewal, so much love, so much new life.
We are well aware that we are in a time of purification in the Church. The scourge of clergy sexual abuse, which can never be tolerated, looms over the church.
There are many reforms that much take place to ensure the safety and effectiveness of our institutions. Reform needs to take place in the Universal Church and in individual dioceses. But, real reform only happens through conversion of hearts, something that we can strive for in this season of Lent.
We ask for the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary to purify the Church. Closeness to Mary’s Immaculate Heart purifies our hearts, leading us closer to Jesus. She is our spiritual mother.
Please join me in asking for her intercession for a blessed, fruitful Lenten season.