Understanding Lenten Practices Through a TOB Lens
March 10, 2022
I grew up Catholic, doing all the typically Catholic things, whether or not they made sense to me at the time. The practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving were customary and emphasized in my family’s home. During Lent I always gave something up, went to the stations of the cross and put pennies in the little cardboard box to be sent away for someone to buy rice. Inevitably, I had that moment when I was a kid when I began eating my movie candy and suddenly remembered that I had given up sweets for Lent… and I was pretty sure that I was going to hell for that. Surely, many of you have had similar experiences. As I matured, I began to ask questions about why the church asks us to participate in these seemingly meaningless sacrifices. However, once I started studying Theology of the Body and reading the works of Pope St. John Paul II, lightbulbs began to go off.
I recall a time when we visited the Grand Canyon and we were just marveling at its breathtaking beauty. It was really stunning to see! Fast forward and juxtapose that experience to the time that we participated with our children in their little ranger classes, where we studied the different layers of rock containing fossils and observed the animals, and considered our surroundings. Our eyes were opened. The beauty was magnified because we understood the meaning of what we were taking in!
“Christ…came to reveal man to himself and make his supreme calling clear.” (Gaudium et Spes 22) In prayer we look at Christ and know who we are, we understand the meaning of our bodies. With a little help from the church and especially Pope St. John Paul II, the beauty of our bodies is magnified!
“The body and only the body makes visible what is invisible, the spiritual and the divine”. We are sensual beings. Our bodies matter. Our bodies tell us about the world around us. But is that all? Sometimes we stop there, we think that only what we can see, hear, smell, taste and touch is all that exists. When we pause, change what we are doing on auto-pilot and more consciously look, listen, smell, taste, and touch, then we know that we can’t stop there. What do I mean? Have you ever done a really tough workout, or labored really hard in your yard and then the next day, muscles you didn’t even know existed are aching? Like the muscle in your forearm or hands? This is what amping up our prayer in Lent is for. When we make a decision to be faithful to a time of looking at Christ, in whatever way is challenging, yet possible for us, we can deepen this understanding of who we are — gift.
Pope St. John Paul II in his encyclical Salvifici Doloris tells us that “Suffering must serve for conversion, that is, for the rebuilding of goodness in the subject, who can recognize the divine mercy in this call to repentance.” When we suffer through fasting, it aids in the rebuilding of the goodness within. It awakens us in a way that we are more aware of not only what we can see, but also what we cannot easily perceive, like the tiny muscles in our sore forearm.
In Pope St. John Paul II’s Wednesday Audience delivered on March 21, 1979, he proposed, “Man geared to material goods, multiple material goods, very often abuses them…. When man is geared exclusively to possession and use of material goods — that is, of things — then also the whole civilization is measured according to the quantity and the quality of the things with which it is in a position to supply man and is not measured with the yardstick suitable for man.” Isn’t it the tragedy of our time that the human person is measured according to what they can produce or the pleasure one can give? Yet again what happens is that we believe that all of these created things, these gifts from God, is where we place our faith. That there is nothing more. When in fact, these creations should point us to the Creator and lift our eyes and hearts to Him in gratitude. Yes, the cup of coffee or bite of delicious bacon wrapped jalapeno should lead us to praise the Creator of such wonderful things. What fasting does is help us to undoubtedly feel in our bodies our desire for the greatness of coffee or bacon wrapped jalapeno and meditate on what it is supposed to point us to — God himself.
We are different from the animals because we receive intellect and free will. “Man is himself also because he succeeds in depriving himself of something, because he is capable of saying ‘no’ to himself. Man is a being composed of body and soul,” continues Pope St. John Paul II in his aforementioned March 21, 1979 Wednesday Audience. When we are capable of denying ourselves something and then give it away, to serve a greater need, we possess ourselves, and that allows us to be the gift we were created to be. You cannot give yourself as gift if you do not possess yourself. In the Catechism we read “God Himself is an Eternal Exchange of Love, Father, Son and Holy Spirit and we are destined to share in that exchange.” In other words, God is Life-Giving-Love. God is the gift exchange, and we are created in this Image! The 3rd practice of lent — almsgiving — helps us to see that man “cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.” (Gaudium et Spes 24) We cannot know who we are unless we make a gift of ourselves. Almsgiving gives us the chance to practice being who we are — our authentic identity that comes from the Trinity.
Lent is a Gift
What a gift the church has given us in Lent. We are given the opportunity not only to grow in intimacy with God, but the tools we need to possess ourselves, the freedom to become who we are, and opportunities to glorify God our Redeemer. In his General Audience on March 28th, 1979, Pope St. John Paul II said “Only with a total attitude — in his relationship with God [Prayer], with himself [Fasting] and with his neighbor [Almsgiving] — does man reach conversion and remain in the state of conversion.”
To my parents who taught us well by their example and by following these practices in our home, “Thank you!” These are clearly not meaningless practices. Even if we don’t fully understand them as children, they can do a mighty work in helping us to become who we are and who we were meant to be.
Regional Curriculum Consultant (South) for Ruah Woods Press