INTRODUCTION: PENANCE IS NOT A BRIBE TO GOD
Lent is upon us. Interestingly, my Lenten penance and goals have changed since my conversion some 25 years ago.
As a preface, let me tell how I bartered with God before my conversion. At that time I was a worrier—I foresaw a future that was always gloomy, with the worst possible scenario coming to pass. For example, if my wife (or wife and children) were off somewhere and past the expected time of return by a half-hour or more, up would come visions of car wrecks, abductions, etc. And so I would say to God, “Please let them come home OK, and I’ll give up chocolate” (or stop biting my finger-nails, or _____ (fill in the blanks.)
“others, again (e.g., Smend), attribute the custom to a desire on the part of the worshipers to humble themselves before their God, so as to arouse His sympathy.”
As the linked article notes, there were a host of holidays and occasions on which ancient Jews would fast, particularly if they sought mercy from the Lord:
“And Nathan departed unto his house. And the Lord struck the child that Uriah’s wife bare unto David, and it was very sick. David therefore besought God for the child; and David fasted, and went in, and lay all night upon the earth. And the elders of his house arose, and went to him, to raise him up from the earth: but he would not, neither did he eat bread with them.” –2 Samuel 12:15,16 (KJV)
Again, bartering with God?
MY LENT AND HOW IT CHANGED
During the first Lent after my conversion to the Church in 1995, I pretty much followed my Jewish ideas. I fasted in the Jewish mode on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, gave up things and practices—candy, biting my fingernails, watching some favorite TV shows. In other words I sacrificed not a goat, but stuff I enjoyed, hoping that this would please God. I didn’t do that which would have made me grow in faith.
As the years passed, I listened to more homilies on Lent and read more about the Church and Lent. It struck me that God didn’t need what I gave up—He wasn’t going to eat that candy or ice cream (His was the “Big Rock Candy Mountain“). What He wanted was that I grow closer to him, that I share—in a very little way—the sufferings of Christ and thereby appreciate more fully what Christ had undergone and what He has gained for us.
So, what I did over the years was to modify my Lenten resolutions, year by year.
- To cultivate the virtue of patience, I resolved not to pass cars going the posted speed limit (I learned to drive in Southern California, where the race is to the swift); this was the resolution broken most often, but these last few years I’ve learned to adhere to it (or maybe that’s just the consequence of growing older).
- To lessen my concern with material things of this world, I resolved not to buy things online;
- Again, to lessen my concern with the material world, I resolved not to watch those cooking show competitions or stream videos of English mysteries to which I had become addicted, and to spend the time thus saved reading or writing material with spiritual content;
- Each Lent I’ve resolved not to eat between meals and eat only one helping of any food that I liked; since I don’t want this to be a diet, I’ve tried to do this as a discipline to moderate concupiscence and gluttony. There’s a quote from St. Augustine that’s pertinent:
“I struggle each day against concupiscence in eating and drinking. It is not something that I can cut off once and for all and touch no more, as I would with concubinage. The bridle put on the throat must be held with moderate looseness and moderate firmness. Is there anyone, Lord, who is not carried a little beyond the limits of personal need?”-St. Augustine of Hippo, Confessions 10, 31
POSITIVE LENTEN RESOLUTIONS
And on a positive note, I’ve resolved to attend Mass every day, to spend more time with the Liturgy of the Hours (to do more than Morning Prayer and the Office of Readings), to do more volunteer work, and to be more liberal in almsgiving. And, most important, not to pray for things or actions, but rather to pray to accept the will of God, to put my trust in Him, and to know His love. I still pray for healing for others and for the Holy Spirit to send grace to family and friends, but this is for others, not myself.
To some degree, these resolutions have been carried through outside of Lent, particularly the positive ones. I don’t claim to live a perpetual Lent as advised by St. Augustine, but there have been changes effected by the forty days. In the main, I try to remember that God cannot be bribed; that Lent is not for Him, but for me.
“Christians must always live this way, without any wish to come down from their Cross–otherwise they will sink beneath the world’s mire. But if we have to do so all our lives, we must make even a greater effort during the days of Lent. It is not a simple matter of living through forty days. Lent is the epitome of our whole life.”-St. Augustine, Sermon 205, I. As quoted in Augustine Day by Day, March 14th
Have a good, a fruitful and a holy Lent!
*This article is adapted from one published 6 February, 2018