Theresa Marino 3/20/23
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Against the backdrop of modern popular thought which holds the elimination of suffering above most other ideals, the ancient ascetic practices of Lent proposed by the Catholic Church seem to many as antiquated at best and masochistic at worst. The Church’s reminder to be charitable to the poor through the practice of almsgiving is generally well-received by Christians and non-Christians alike. But increased prayer and fasting by way of voluntary penances? Are we Medieval monks? Are we superstitious, oldschool grandmothers? Could a good God expect us to impose suffering on ourselves needlessly? Does the Church really expect the average lay person to meet these lofty standards of sanctity in the modern age?
It would surprise most naysayers just how practical and applicable to real-life the Catholic Church’s rationale is in this matter. In fact, it is the world of our day – not the Church of our day – which allures us with a false hope of life untainted by suffering or pain. We are coached through most popular modes of culture to visualize and manifest whatever life goals we desire after our own image. It has always been Christ who breaks that rosey-eyed view of earth’s sojourn with the words; “If you would be my disciple, pick up your cross and follow me.”
The Church teaches therefore, that it is precisely through spiritual training – the voluntary taking up of small crosses when it is avoidable – that we ready ourselves to meet the larger, more daunting and unavoidable crosses that are the unfortunate reality of an imperfect and broken world in which we live. As ancestors of Eve and inheritors of Original Sin, we know there is no set of circumstances we can manufacture through independence, positive thinking, education or any form of human striving which could shield us entirely from the suffering, disappointment, sickness, tragedy and inevitable death of our fragile humanity. This notion firmly in hand, Mother Church, in love and wisdom, advises us during the season of Lent to face head-on the passion and death which we all must endure as authentic followers of Jesus and citizens of reality.
Christ compels us to “pick up” our cross. Note how this is phrased in the imperative form – as a command. Most things we’re commanded to do require a domineering of the emotions by the will, since they don’t feel good. Otherwise, we’d do them without being commanded. Picking up one’s cross goes against the natural desires of flesh and popular persuasion. Yet, herein lies the tactic by which Lent trains us to distinguish ourselves as Christians who are prepared for all things the world can hand us – even death.
Fasting, in essence, is a chosen detachment. It is done in order to prepare ourselves for the unchosen trials of life through which we will be forcibly detached from our comforts. With Lenten disciplines tried and tested, we can meet and respond to such trails from a place of strategy rather than novice naivety. Temporary deprivation of small comforts – “giving up” something for Lent – seems a relatively small price to pay for greater discipline gained over our bodies, minds, hearts and wills. But when something is removed, it leaves a hole which cries out to be filled. That’s where prayer comes in.
If fasting is the intentional detachment from things which are not ultimate goods, then prayer is the opposite. It is the voluntary attachment to what (Who) is the ultimate good. Namely, Christ Himself. Fasting creates the space, and prayer fills it up with God. Otherwise, we would surely be tempted to fill the space created by lack of caffeine with irritability, lack of bread with vanity, lack of wine with self-pity. Fasting and prayer has been the winning combination for religious people through millenia not because of its loftiness, but because it is essential to human thriving! By these means we learn how to embrace the cross as Christ does, not to avoid it as the world does.
It seems fitting that the beginning of the Lenten season always overlaps with the feast of Saint Valentine, because it is Divine Love which kept Christ on the Cross for us. Made in His image and likeness, we know that even the most beautifully assorted chocolates or rousing sexual experiences aren’t enough to fulfill human longing. Nor are these worldly expressions of love strong enough to keep us nailed to our crosses. It is God’s love alone which is not angry or selfish but truthful, perseverant and hopeful. It never fails, as we surely do. It is His love alone which can keep us steadfast in our Lenten devotions this season, and all the resolutions for love’s sake that we take up in this life besides.
Theresa Marino is a New York native who has served the Catholic Church throughout her twenties in various ministry capacities. Currently a middle school Religion Teacher, she has also worked in high school campus ministry, music ministry, mission work and parish settings.
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