One of you, dear readers, commented that you were looking forward to my Lenten reflections. No pressure there! There are so many books of reflections for each day of Lent and so many bloggers posting their Lenten thoughts that I am a bit overwhelmed and afraid I can add little inspiration to the volumes of written material. I have some random thoughts about Lent, but I can’t seem to put them all together just yet. Please forgive me if this posting seems a bit incoherent.
The demands of our Adult Faith Development programs at my church have jolted me out of my January malaise (a good thing), but now I feel pulled in so many different directions. Those of you who remember the 70s might recall a song by Jackson Browne called “Running on Empty” (1977). That’s a bit how I feel right now.
Running on – running on empty
Running on – running blind
Running on – running into the sun
But I’m running behind
So the Gospel invitation “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while” (Mark 6:31) resonates with me as we begin the season of Lent.
Lent is an invitation to spend time in a deserted place and to turn around (convert) and live the Gospel. It’s a time when we usually make resolutions to become our better selves. We are encouraged to pray, fast, and give alms. In the past, I prepared lists of resolutions in each of these three categories – a long list forgotten by the second week of Lent. Other years, I recommitted to the annual resolutions that I make on the first Sunday of Advent. The difficulty here is that there is little to distinguish Lent from the rest of the year. Last year, I followed a 1-1-1 program suggested by a pamphlet called Lent: Keep It Simple by Fr. James Shafer, OSV (published by Our Sunday Visitor): 1 sin that is keeping us from God; 1 add-in, for example, a corporal or spiritual work of mercy; and 1 give up, spiritual as well as material. Believe it or not, 3 turned out to be 2 resolutions too many!
This year, I thought I might focus on one area only – fasting. For a long time, I have resisted the idea of fasting from food as a Lenten practice. I think that all those pre-Vatican Council regulations made fasting seem artificial: fast on these days; fast if you are in this age range; fasting not required on Sundays; dispensation from fasting if St. Patrick’s Day fell on a Friday! And the “give-ups” didn’t help either. No sweets during Lent, but I could sin with my mouth in other ways (gossip, slander, racial slurs, etc.) without giving Lent a second thought. Consequently, in the past, I focused on fasting in non-food areas: fasting from gossip, fasting from endless hours of television, fasting from checking Facebook multiple times a day.
Moreover, fasting from food felt more like committing to a diet and not very penitential. Lately, I have been rethinking this whole idea of fasting. In many ways, food is an addiction for me. In the very least, I have some bad habits where food is concerned. I am damaging my body more and more. I want to “turn around” and stop the damage, and reverse what damage I can. Where I might emphasize the spiritual during Lent, my spirit resides in this one and only body that I will have in this lifetime. I don’t always take very good care of it.
The prophet Joel (2:12) urges us to “return to the Lord with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning.” Taking the title from a nutrition book I am reading, “It starts with food.” Even the corporal works of mercy start with “Feed the hungry.” I believe that feeding the hungry applies to me, too. I need to feed myself ONLY when I am hungry. One diet counselor says that putting food into a body that does not need it is a waste. At the same time that I am saying no to food, I will think about those who are waiting to be fed. So, my almsgiving this Lent will be focused on food: bags of food for food pantries, checks to local agencies serving food, preparing soup for Lenten soup suppers, and giving cash and a smile to men and women on street corners who are looking for their next meal.
Will 40 days of fasting, dietary restrictions, and healthy eating be enough time to convert bad habits that developed over years? What will happen after Easter? There is no timeline for conversion. Forty is a symbolic number in the Bible. It’s not so much about counting how well I am doing with my Lenten resolution, but how my change of habits are softening my heart.
One of my favorite hymns of praise is Psalm 95. The response we often sing is “If today you hear God’s voice, harden not your hearts.” (v. 8) May we all approach this season of Lent listening for God’s voice and with a desire to soften our hearts, no matter what our Lenten practices may be.