Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Fresh Look at the Lenten Season

When we think of Lent, we often think of fasting, of giving up something that we like. Then I read an excerpt from The Shepherd of Hermas (2nd century AD) and it completely changed my thinking about fasting and denial.
I was sitting on a hillside, rather pleased with myself. I was fasting, as I often did, denying myself food, and getting up very early to climb the mountain and pray. I felt in this way I could repay the Lord for some of the difficult things he went through for me.

But then the shepherd approached me.
"What are you doing up here so early in the morning?" he asked.
"I'm observing a fast," I said, "to the Lord."
"What sort of a fast is that?"
"Oh, my usual. I abstain from food. Deny myself luxuries. Get up early. And pray."
The shepherd didn't look impressed.
"That's not the sort of fast that pleases the Lord," he said. "That's not what he asks of you."
He could see the puzzled look on my face.

"Look, God does not want you to deny yourself good things. That is no road to holiness. A true fast is to deny yourself bad things: keep his commandments, do what he says, reject evil thoughts and desires the moment they enter your imagination. Reject what is wrong and serve God with a simple, uncomplicated heart. If you do that, you are fasting - fasting in a way that pleases the Lord."
For me this was very liberating. Jesus' purpose in going out into the wilderness was to spend time with God away from people and activities and to reflect on the ministry to which God seemed to be calling him at the time of his baptism. It was time of discernment.

What would happen if we considered Lent a time of discernment?
a time to look at ourselves, without judgement, and see where we feel we have missed the mark a time to assess how we are using our gifts and talents

a time to reflect on our ministry, whatever that ministry might be, and ask ourselves what we think God might be calling us to do in the coming year
a time to look at our relationships with ourselves, with our families, our friends and colleagues and with God - are they healthy and helpful.

To do this we need to be honest with ourselves non-judgmental to ask God for help and to be open to God's transforming grace and love

SO . . . to go back to the idea of Lent in the passage from The Shepherd of Hermas. Are there some "bad things" that you would like to fast from during Lent?

St. Paul writes in Colossians 3:12-14:
Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved,
clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.
Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another.
Forgive as the Lord forgave you.
And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
So if I were to choose to deny myself "a bad thing" for Lent, what would it be? I can think of lots of things I'd like to let go of, e.g., impatience, anxiety, lack of trust, fear, self-will, a critical spirit, overeating, etc.However, trying to deny oneself tends to put one at war with oneself. I find it more helpful to put a positive spin on it. For example, Could I cultivate patience, or faith or trust or courage or obedience or a gentle spirit, etc.? Could I learn to savour my food and eat more slowly instead of over-eating?

Or perhaps I could deepen my relationship with God or with someone else whom I find difficult to get along with or seek to know myself better, my gifts (am I using them for the benefit of others?) and my weaknesses (am I denying them? are they hurting others?).

The possibilities are endless and I couldn't possibly work on all of them at one time. I'd probably give up within 24 hrs. What I would suggest doing is this:

Take a few moments to imagine yourself in the presence of God, the God who loves you more than you can possibly imagine, who longs for what is best for you, and who will never force you to do anything.

Ask God to bring to mind those negative qualities, activities or relationships that seem to be causing you the most difficulty at the moment. Write down whatever comes to mind - maybe 5 or 6 things - which seem to be preventing you from loving others or are standing in the way of greater intimacy with God.

Ask God which one of those seems like the best one to work on this Lent or at this moment in time.

Supposing "impatience" is the one that comes to mind. Now choose its positive aspect - patience

Now decide how you might work on patience, for example:

Make a sign that says BE PATIENT WITH YOURSELF and put it on your mirror or in your pocket

Look up some passages on patience in the scriptures, e.g. Ephesians 4:1-3
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
Before you go to sleep at night, look back at the previous day and ask yourself, "Did I show patience anytime today?" If yes, thank God. "Was I fearful/lacking in patience today?" If the answer is yes, do not judge or condemn yourself. Try to observe what happened? Remember that you have had many years of experiencing impatience and perhaps only a few days of trying to practise patience. Ask God to help you to do better tomorrow.

If it's a negative habit or relationship that God has drawn your attention to ask yourself what you might do to repair the relationship or what you might substitute for the negative habit and work on that.

Finally, do not judge yourself on the results. Each time you fail, simply begin again. Every day is a new day!

A reflection by Sr. Elizabeth, SSJD 
Lenten Musings - Ash Wednesday 2009

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