Lent: Forty Days of “Giving Up”
Or Forty Days Closer to God?*

coffee
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.)

Even though I was not altogether sure then that there was a God,  I usually made good on these attempted bribes, at least for an extended period of time, or until the next occasion of potential disaster arose.   But it never occurred to me, as my wife pointed out later after my conversion, that this was a very pagan practice and totally against Catholic notions of what God demands of us.   And so to Lent.

 

JEWISH PRELIMINARIES
One of the things one is supposed to do at Lent is fast.   This was not a new thing for me.  As a secular Jew (non-religious) I would observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, by fasting (only water and coffee, a fast, which at 89, I still have observed) and by reflecting on the past year and what I had done wrong.  Please note that the Catholic fasting regimen is more lenient than the Jewish.   Even by drinking coffee I was not holding strictly to a Jewish fasting regime.
Scholars have speculated about how fasting arose with the Jews:  according to the Jewish Encyclopedia,

“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!

NOTE

*This article is adapted from one published 6 February,  2018

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1 thought on “Lent: Forty Days of “Giving Up”<br> Or Forty Days Closer to God?*”

  1. As a cradle Catholic, I have traveled a similar road to yours. I have gone from giving up chocolate to giving up adult libations, not as a bribe but, as a test of temperance. We do become slaves of the pleasures of secular life, don’t we? In addition to alms giving, the cost of anything given up is then donated to the poor. Spiritual reading is something I hope to do more of as the years go by. On that note, I feel called to add this or that to what I already do. As we get older, we do have more blessed time for this type of thing. Thank you and God bless!

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