“Why are dust and ashes proud? Even during life man’s body decays … a king today – tomorrow he is dead,” writes Sirach (Sirach 10:9). Welcome to Lent, the first step to a profound life in the spirit.
Scriptures remind us we are first “spirit”. According to St. Paul, we are “spirit, soul, and body” (1 Thessalonians 5:23). Jesus tells the woman at the well, “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in Spirit and truth,” (John 4:24).
We Are Dust and Unto Dust We Shall Return
Science tell us when we remove the water from a human body, all that remains is, essentially, “dust”. Over 90% of our body is dust, the rest is water. Scientists, however, do not acknowledge that the One who created us also created the universe, so why, on an elemental level, would we not be of the same substance?
Fortunately, science does not delve into the world of Spirit. That is why we follow the Creator who opened for us the Gates of Heaven. If we relied only on scientific knowledge, we would be “the most pitiable of men,” as St. Paul says (1 Corinthians 15:19). We could say that we would be all dressed up in our finest stardust suits, with no place to go.
A Lenten Plan
If we look at Lent as a spirit-building “40-Day Plan” to knock out sin, doubt, fear, and anxiety, and to build strong spiritual muscles for the fight that lies before us, we may find this time precious and fruitful.
First, get on the scale. Standing on the scale and seeing our present condition may be frightening. It is something I do not want to know. I can tell there is a problem if I have to jump up and down to button my pants. I checked the tag on my pants a few times, hoping I put on the wrong size.
The best scale for spirit-building is the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In it we come to terms with our present condition, which is the first step in effecting change in our spiritual lives. In my diocese, we have a diocesan Day for Reconciliation. Priests and laity gather at the cathedral for a time of prayer and Sacrament. They do this too close to Holy Week. I would like them to do this now, while ashes drop to my nose and chin, helping me remember I am “dust, and to dust I shall return.” Dust and ashes in the confessional help us to put pride at the top of the sin list. Mother Angelica said the confessional is not a place to tell God how good I am or to recount all the good things I have done. There is only one reason for this Sacrament: conversion.
The Three Penitential Practices
The Church teaches that during Lent we practice Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving. Researchers have found that fasting two days a week has profound, positive health effects for the body. It is the least expensive diet one could have for weight loss. We do not have to do anything, buy anything, read or study anything to accomplish it. Fasting also turns our minds to things of the spirit.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches on Almsgiving, Prayer, and Fasting:
When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to others to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you. (Matthew 6:16-18)
God has a reward for those who fast. He will repay, Jesus tells us.
The Value of Fasting
In Jesus’ day, the pious Jews fasted two days a week. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector: “The Pharisee … spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and I pay tithes…’” (Luke 18:11-12).
In The Story of Christianity, author Justo L. Gonzalez explained that, “At an early date, however, at least some Christians began fasting, not on Mondays and Thursdays, like the Jews, but rather on Wednesdays and Fridays” (italics added).
The Church does not require that we fast two days a week, but only two days throughout all of Lent: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Requirements for a successful fast are these: eating one full meal and two smaller meals that, added together, do not exceed a normal full meal. Norms on fasting are obligatory from age 18 until age 59 (as per the USCCB). Catholics are required to abstain from meat on Fridays throughout Lent. In fasting we are drawn to prayer.
The Discipline of Prayer
Opportunities for prayer are limitless. Lent offers the opportunity to explore forms of prayer we have yet to experience. In an earlier post I covered major forms of prayer encouraged by the Church. Prayer may be communal or personal. I have found personal prayer difficult because I am too easy on myself. In communal prayer I am obligated to others (or one other), and am more diligent. Almsgiving is prayer. It is a spiritual experience.
The Joy of Almsgiving
On my last trek to New York City, I put nineteen ten-dollar bills in one pocket, and one ten-dollar bill in my left front. As we traveled by foot around that tremendous city, we met persons who seemed less fortunate than ourselves. Without making suggestion to my magnanimous persona, in one move my hand withdrew a ten and placed it in the cup, bowl, box, or whatever the person used to hold money, and walked on. I moved another ten to the empty pocket. When asked by a family member, I explained that it is a tremendous experience to give to someone who can never return the gift. I did not need my name emblazoned on a Broadway marquee, listed in the diocesan paper, or receipted for Income Tax purposes. It was between me and God. Secret, silent giving, where my right hand did not know what my left was doing. There was no second thought. “That guy will only buy drugs with it.” It was my gift to God, passed through one of His creations. When we returned from our trip, I knew that my next visit called for twenties. Ten was not enough these days. My spouse assured me we needed it more. I assured her that God answers prayers.
The Proper Motive for Sacrifice
Over the years my Lenten practices included giving up things, especially candy, because when Easter came, I knew I would get it all back, and then some. After rethinking my motives and actions, I found that forty days is not enough. Two years ago, we attend daily Mass for Lent. However, at Easter, we decided it filled a spiritual void that was not worth limiting to just forty days, and we continued the practice after the season ended. Now, when Lent begins, our Parish Priest celebrates Mass at 7AM, rather than 8. When Daylight Savings begins, it will feel like 6AM.
At Easter, the only thing we will be looking forward to will be resuming the 8AM Mass. Have a happy and blessed Lent.