The spirit of Lent defies us. We might give up Facebook, but fill our extra time with more TV or food. We, putting ourselves in the position of the rich people and not the widow (Mk. 12:41-44), might give more away, but from excess, not from our want. We might forsake one food we love, but end up replacing it with others we enjoy just as much, if not more.
Yesterday, while on retreat, a priest awoke me to the problem of fasting, or more generally, of giving “things” up for Lent. While I found his reminder challenging he was kind enough to give examples of Christian triumphs as well as failures. I, for one, knew that I had been eating salty or otherwise tasty foods to replace everything else I’d given up. He reminded me such actions are not in the spirit of the seasons; yet, his examples suggested the universal call to, and possibility of, holiness.
His first example involved a Coptic Orthodox couple who were to be married in August. In order to accommodate Roman Catholic family members, the celebration had to occur during the fast for the Dormition of the Theotokos (roughly the Eastern equivalent of the Assumption, though it includes a fast beforehand. Typically people would not marry during this time, as, at one time, Catholics did not marry during Lent). Throughout this period, no meat may be eaten. And so, their wedding reception was entirely devoid of it; there was not one scrap through the entire celebration. The Catholic priest who relayed the story to me was in attendance and he asked them if they really planned to have a reception in this way. Their response floored him: they said that in their country (Egypt), people died for the faith (and still do). What is abstinence from meat during a time of celebration, as a sacrifice to God, when so many have given so much more? Needless to say the priest left feeling embarrassed and edified.
His other story relates directly to the parable from Mark I mentioned above. The Father said that at his parish there was a woman who had virtually nothing; her poverty was so dire that she visited her own parish’s food pantry whenever it was operating. Yet, at every Mass, she would put a quarter into her envelope, even though that small donation meant a tangible impact in her own life; it probably meant going hungrier, even missing out on food for the day. She gave out of all she had, certainly not out of her excess.
These lessons are hard ones, especially for Millennials like myself, though also for all of us who live comfortable lives in a relatively wealthy country. But just as Jesus taught through parables, so this priest taught through examples, and effective ones at that. I took his stories as invitations to deepen our Lenten devotions, to imitate the lives of these unnamed and everyday saints. And that’s the best part: these are just everyday people, living their lives among us in poverty of spirit. We are invited to act in just the same way, not only to stick to the promises we have made, but to ensure that we are sticking to them in a holy and mortifying way, not observing the wording of the law while ignoring its intent: growing closer to God in love, “for the letter brings death, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6).