It is “Fat Tuesday” or “Mardi Gras,” “Carnival.” Each of these names tells us a little about the season that begins tomorrow – Lent. We have all seen pictures of what some cultures do to prepare for the season of penitence. It basically comes down to overloading the senses that we are about to starve for forty days.
By now most Catholics have decided what they will do for Lent. Some will give up chocolate, sweets, coffee, or alcohol. Others will give up using social media such as Facebook. Some will stop playing games on their computers. I know one man who writes a note of appreciation to a different person each day of Lent. Some also will serve a simple meal on the Fridays of Lent and will donate the money they save to a deserving charity. Some will engage in extra prayer, some even going to Mass every day of Lent. I was once told that in the Polish culture, the horseradish that was used to season their meals was put away for the forty days of Lent. The list of penances and penitential practices goes on and on. What do you plan to do? Before you decide, read on.
There is one thing that most of us have in common about Lenten practices. On Easter Sunday we will put aside our penitential practices until next year.
I would like to tell you the incredible, and I do mean unbelievable, story of Brother M. He’s no longer among us, and I am not sure he would want me to brag about him. So I am only identifying him by an initial.
One night many years ago, I was supposed to drive from St. Louis to one of the friaries to chair a meeting. A few days before that, Brother M. appeared in the dining room and asked if anyone were driving to the meeting and could he tag along. I told him that I would be going after supper the night before the meeting and that he was welcome to ride with me. He was some fifty years older than I; so I didn’t think there would be very much conversation during the drive. I was dead wrong in that assumption.
For the three or so hours during the drive, Brother M. told me the story of his life, a fascinating story indeed. He told me how he had come to discern his vocation through his confessor who challenged him to choose a Lenten practice that he could continue for the rest of his life. “Lent is about conversion,” the priest told Brother M. “We don’t just convert for forty days.” So Brother M. chose a Lenten practice that he could continue for the rest of his life. He was now in his eighties. He then told me something that astounded me. Each Lent since that fateful confession, he had chosen a Lenten practice that he would then continue for the rest of his life. That meant that some sixty Lenten penances were still going on each and every day of his life! When he told me this, there was no hint of pride in his voice. In fact, quite the opposite was true. He was admitting to me that there was much about his life that needed changing. God had given him many Lents. He had used them to make the necessary course corrections. He spoke of his gratitude that God had given him the time to change, to turn toward God.
Lent is about conversion. It is about turning toward the Lord and confronting the gaps in our relationship with our God. It is, in the words of St. Paul, an acceptable time, an opportunity. Brother M. understood that about Lent. He knew that it was not enough to simply practice some deed or give up some comfort or even some vice for forty days. Today is the acceptable time to turn to the Lord, to admit that not all is as it should be in our day to day living. How sad it would be if after forty days of intensifying our relationship with God we would simply go back to the way things were before Ash Wednesday.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M.