The above painting is not what the reality should be, yet it is better than what the reality now is. There is an intimate connection between Carnival (Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras) and Lent. We’ve lost the former and we have been progressively losing the latter.
In the Roman Church, Lent is not exactly an austere season. It’s penitential, but there isn’t a lot asked of Roman Catholics by the Church. All that is required is to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday (the fast isn’t strict either), and to abstain from meat on Friday. This is all; nothing more. In addition, it is customary for people to give something up. This is devotional. One is not required to do this nor is one bound to keep their private observance. They also set the conditions for their observance. The biggest thing on people’s minds is “What am I giving up for Lent?” With large parish communities and very little regular one-on-one spiritual direction this became a question for the individual without real assistance from another qualified person in the spiritual life. This and other various reasons led to Lent becoming a highly individualized affair. The problem is that living in the Church is not an individual affair.
We are one body and the life of the Christian can only be lived in the communion of the Church. Lenten practice becoming highly individualized has resulted in a weaker awareness of the meaning of Lent. This has resulted in a plethora of blog posts, programs, and opinion pieces on how to make the practice of Lent truly fruitful or even “the best Lent ever.” There are more and more attention-getters saying, “Don’t give up chocolate. Do this instead.” Sometimes “this” refers to other pleasures to give up such as hot showers. Other times “this” refers to something like a book study or daily devotionals sent by email. The problem is that Lent is a penitential season and some of these are not penitential acts or they are penitential in a disordered way. But this isn’t about penance for penance’s sake.
Our Lenten practices should draw us nearer to God and do so in accord with the distinctiveness of the season as opposed to other seasons of the year. Book studies and daily reflections are good, but they aren’t distinctive to Lent. This doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be part of one’s Lenten practice. The problem is we are starting to see them pitted against traditional Lenten practices that are rooted in the Church’s life. We are starting to be told that attending a book study or receiving daily reflections in our email can take the place of abstinence. There is no opposition here though. In what way does going to a book study or receiving daily reflections oppose giving something up? This increasing movement of promoting a Lent with meaning is being done without reason at the expense of a good and strong Catholic custom.
It is not simply about giving something up though. Venerable Sheen’s words help us here as well. What does giving up hot showers benefit us if there is no change in our prayer? What does it benefit us if it does not prompt us to give alms for those who do not have a choice in whether they take a cold shower or not – and by this I mean our neighbors right here in the United States? What does it benefit us if we persist in a compulsive use of the things in our life, a compulsive use that takes us from God? (The writer who recommended giving up hot showers said nothing about prayer, almsgiving, or time given to God. It basically boiled down to: “Yes, it sucks, but Jesus died on the Cross for you, so…”). Abstaining from certain foods and drinks on the other hand gives us reminders throughout the day to turn to God. The physical feelings and the desires we experience prompt us to raise our minds and hearts to God. They also teach through experience detachment (as does increased almsgiving) which frees the soul to give of itself to God and others.
When confusion abounds and practice goes in so many different directions, some of which may be dubious, it is time to go back to basics. No season of the liturgical year is ultra-individualized in its practice and this includes Lent. Living a Christian life means living an ecclesial life. The Church does give a Lenten life – other practices in addition to what is required. In the United States of America the following are commonly practiced in Roman Catholic parishes during Lent:
- Stations of the Cross every Friday
- Having a soup supper as a community after praying the Stations of the Cross every Friday
- Reconciliation services
- 24 Hours for the Lord
- Lenten missions (usually two to three consecutive evenings)
- Fish fries
Participating in a greater part of the Church’s liturgical and communal life is the foundation for living the life in Christ and drawing nearer to God. The liturgical and communal life of the Church should be the basis for our Lenten practices. Finally, there are ways of participating in the life of the Church through common customs. In the Roman Catholic Church giving something up for Lent is one of these customs. Let us embrace it.