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Saturday, February 24, 2007

Lent - Various Fastings

“Our motive in Lenten renunciations ought not be limited to penance in reparation for sin. Rather, exercises of self-denial are for the sake of arousing in us a deeper hunger of soul. The image of fasting is especially apt here. Even mild forms of self-abnegation in our eating habits do more than simply empty us of indulgent tendencies. By keeping the self waiting, refusing it immediate gratification, we open ourselves to a fundamental spiritual truth: The willingness to deny ourselves awakens in us a capacity to give ourselves in greater love to Our Lord...In this sense, all practices of self-denial are exercises of love meant to refine our spiritual focus, so that the bridegroom who may have faded somewhat from our need becomes again our primary love.”

Fr. Donald Haggerty

This is not only true with food.

(Though on a side note, I think we, as Americans, underestimate the power that an abundance of food has over us. We rarely want for anything. Our groceries are full of items from every corner of the globe. As a semi-regular cook, I love having the variety of things to use to make meals. How many of us, if we really set our mind to it, couldn't have a meal of almost any style in front of us in less than an hour from when we decide, finally, what it is we want? We sometimes spend more time debating the merits of this food choice or that one than we do actually consuming the food. We grow so used to the variety and selection that we can't decide: “No, what do YOU want for dinner, dear.”

And yet, do we always see the abundance around us for what it is: a glorious gift from a loving Father? I doubt it. I absolutely enjoy a good meal, but how often do I really stop and acknowledge that I am blessed by God to have such tasty opportunities? I like to think that I am grateful more often than not, but it is still good to be reminded.

Which is why we practice certain disciplines of diet within Lent: to put food into perspective. “No meat on Fridays” really isn't that hard to do. A nice piece of fish, some pasta, a cheese pizza, a nice salad and cup of soup...wow, what a sacrifice, right? But what I've found is that, in our daily lives, it is really difficult to THINK before you EAT. The sausage biscuit that I warmed up in the microwave is half-consumed before I even think about it. So even little efforts of avoiding meat on Fridays of not snacking in between meals or giving up a favored treat help us gain perspective. The hunger of the body helps to feed the hunger of the soul...but I digress.)

Oddly, the quote of Fr. Haggerty above reminded me of Seinfeld. That is probably some level of heresy, though I certainly don't mean it to be so.

(In fact, I see Seinfeld as being very indicative of the human tendency toward self-involvement. In its absurdity, it illuminates pettiness and selfishness in our own lives. I find that illuminating quality to be compelling, in addition to finding it terribly funny in the farcical circumstances that surround the show...another digression.)

There is an episode of Seinfeld where George gives up sex. He gives up having it, simulating it, and even thinking about it. He devotes himself to reading and studying and channels all of the energy he used to devote to sexual gratification into other areas of his life.

He gets smarter. He enjoys life more. He teaches Derek Jeter how to hit.

Fasting isn't just about food. It is about anything in our life we come to value too greatly. It is about TV, impure sexual impulses, video games, excessive overtime, college basketball, a good cigar, a hobby, a fine wine, mmmm chocolate donuts (wait, that's food right? I told you.)...what ever it is that deadens us to the movement of God. Not just “negative things”,either. TV, sex, games, work; none of these are evil in and of themselves. But we have a hard time keeping them in perspective in our lives. We allow them to take large chunks of our day away from us, and when we do, we allow them to supplant something more beneficial. Maybe it is our job, or our family, or our time with God, but ultimately, when anything becomes so dominant that it begins to obscure a properly ordered relationship, it is a problem.

George's self-denial opened up new worlds to him. He was able to feed other hungers that had been masked by his preoccupation with sex. The same should be true for us. When we deny the pull of some external thing, we should find that we can be more attuned to other matters. Maybe we can give more of ourselves to our family, our co-workers, our fellow parishioners. Maybe we can feed our hunger by turning to God.

Eventually, George gave in to his impulses and returned to his semi-bumbling ways.

Sometimes, we do too. Maybe it is the Monday of Easter that we go right back to whatever we gave up for Lent. Maybe it creeps back in slowly. (Sometimes, by the Grace of God, we actually free ourselves from some spiritual habit or another.) But that is the beauty of the liturgical cycles. Next year, about this time, we'll be presented with the opportunity to right our course yet again.

Loving Father, help me to hand myself over to you so that I can love you as you deserve.
Renew the call of love you made to me and rekindle my desire to follow you.

A Prayer for Homecoming

Our Father, we have wandered
And hidden from your face;
In foolishness have squandered
Your legacy of grace.

But now in exile dwelling,
We rise with fear and shame,
As distant but compelling,
We hear you call our name.

And now at length discerning
The evil that we do,
Behold us, Lord, retuning
With hope and trust to you.

In haste you come to meet us
And home rejoicing bring,
In gladness there to greet us
With calf and robe and ring.

O Lord of all the living,
Both banished and restored
Compassionate, forgiving
And ever caring Lord.

Grant now the our transgressing,
Our faithlessness may cease,
Stretch out your hand in blessing,
In pardon and in peace.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Lent - Preparing Ourselves

Loving Father, please allow me this Lent to leave behind my old self and to prepare well for the new creation you make possible through the death and resurrection of your Son.

We mark other events in life by preparing ourselves. We don't go into a big job interview without having thought through answers to some basic questions. We don't pick up our sweetheart for a date without having showered and put on clean clothes and applied some sort of product to our hair. (We only get that sloppy after she's agreed to marry us.) Most of us don't even go to the grocery store without some plan as to what we need to buy.

And that is what Lent is, annually...a preparing for Easter... The whole concept of Lent - at one time a very foreign - is now so important to me. Specifically, the idea of a concentrated time of sloughing off the old self.

This I declare, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does corruption inherit incorruption. Behold, I tell you a mystery. We shall not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed, in an instant, in the blink of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.
1 Corinthians 15:50-52

Uniting ourselves into Christ's suffering, and strengthening our faith in the resurrection...

But if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some among you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then neither has Christ been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then empty is our preaching; empty, too, is your faith. ..For if the dead are not raised, neither has Christ been raised, and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain; you are still in your sins...If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all.
1 Corinthians 15:12-14, 16-17,19

A Prayer to Prepare for the Easter Sacraments
Guide me, O though great Redeemer,
Pilgrim through this barren land.
I am weak, but thou art mighty;
Hold me with thy powerful hand.
Bread of heaven, bread of heaven,
Feed me till I want no more.
Feed me till I want no more.

Nothing original here, today. Reflections on the Stations of the Cross will begin Monday - maybe sooner if I go somewhere that I have internet access this weekend...

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Stations of the Cross - Prelude: Act of Contrition and Prayer

The Way of the Cross - the retracing of the path of Christ from his death sentence to the laying of his now-lifeless body in the tomb - begins with an act of contrition and prayer. Why? Because it is in examining ourselves, admitting our faults, and asking for the Grace of true conversion that we find ourselves pulled closer and closer to the Will of God. It is a way to put our own sinfulness into perspective and to deny the god of self we are so easily found to kneel before, re-enthroning God as Lord and Savior.

Psalm 36: 2-10

Sin speaks to the sinner
in the depths of his heart.
There is no fear of God
before his eyes.

He so flatters himself in his mind
that he knows not his guilt.
In his mouth are mischief and deceit.
All wisdom is gone.

He plots the defeat of goodness
as he lies on his bed.
He has set his foot on evil ways,
he clings to what is evil.

Your love, Lord, reaches to heaven;
your truth to the skies.
Your justice is like God's mountain,
your judgements like the deep.

To both man and beast you give protection.
O Lord, how precious is your love.
My God, the sons of men
find refuge in the shelter of your wings.

They feast on the riches of your house;
they drink from the stream of your delight.
In you is the source of life
and in your light we see light.

From A Prayer for Conversion of Heart

You have promised to forgive
Contrite sinners who repent;
So I come with humbled heart,
By your word made confident.

I have sinned, Lord, I have sinned,
Well I know my wickedness.
Yet I make this prayer to you:
Lord, forgive me, heal and bless.

Let me not be lost in sin,
Banished to eternal night;
God, who hears the penitent,
Let your goodness show your might.

Though I be unworthy, Lord,
Your great mercy I will claim,
Till I join the hosts above,
Who forever praise your name.

From The Heart of the Matter - Monsignor James Turrow, reflections on Matthew 6

Prayer and religious practice ought not to be used for enhancing one's image. Its thrust must be soli Deo - for God alone. At prayer the furthest thought from one's mind must be "what will people think" to see me praying...After all, Jesus did not say: "Take care not to perform righteous deeds"- period. He went on to [add]: "in order that people may see them." That is the kind of self-advertising that poisons one's good works and that Jesus dissuades us from indulging in. Purity of motive in praying and in doing good works is at the heart of the matter.

Prayer for Ash Wednesday

Loving Father, let me live this Lent in a spirit of true and deep conversion.

-Excerpts from the Magnificat Lenten Companion

Lent - 2007, part one

I've never been one to follow through, really, with "resolutions". The New Year's kind, specifically.

That said, I've found that Lenten "resolutions" are important for me. And they have, in past years, been mostly successful. Not just from a "I did it" standpoint, but from the actual tiny-bits of me that have been transformed, through the Grace of God, into something a little better.

And that is what Lent is: our offering of ourselves to be transformed by God, acknowledging our own weakness, and clinging to the hope of the Cross of Good Friday and the Rising on Easter.

And so, to demonstrate our offering of ourselves to be more than just lip-service, we do "things", which is what we humans do to demonstrate our belief. We back up our belief with action, and with action that demonstrates a genuine reliance on that belief.

"Give it up for Lent!" was a phrase one of my professors at Ball State would use any time she was trying to point out a flaw in our teaching strategies. "You think that telling a kid to try harder is an effective strategy? If the kid is trying as hard as he knows how, then how can he try 'harder'? If you ever say those words, give it up for Lent."

I've come to a slightly different understanding of it, thankfully, though I do appreciate the sentiment.

Giving up something...a bad habit or a sinful tendency (or whatever thing or things you can identify as causing you to find yourself in a situation to sin or tempt you to sin)...highly recommended. If you can put it off for 40 days, you can put it off for 50. Then maybe more. Identifying the areas in our lives where we fail ourselves, our families, our friends, our church, our Lord...and - through prayer and with Grace - making an effort to minimize and eradicate those things from our lives, even if only for a few weeks, can make a difference. It is the action of the belief: I want to remove this from my life, and I'm not just SAYING it; I'm DOING something about it.

Giving up something that is good - and that you enjoy - as an act of fasting...highly recommended. You hear of people giving up sweets or coffee or whatever, and often times with an incomplete understanding of the "why" behind it. (The same is true for the meatless Fridays and the fasting from food on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.) Giving up something that is enjoyed is an act of Stewardship; it is the ultimate "thank you" to God for the things He has given us. How so? Because the very act of denying ourselves of something we enjoy can be both an act of recognition of the One who Gives, and an act of acknowledging the priority of the One who Gives over and above the gift itself. Again, it is easy enough to say that I value God more than I value the material things I've been blessed with, but the act of abstinence from something that is a greatly enjoyed gift is an action to back up those words.

Finally, taking on some new aspect of praising and worshipping God...highly recommended. Identifying a spiritual weakness and making a concentrated effort to address the weakness is as essential (or maybe more so) than "giving up" something. Making a spiritual preparation for Easter makes Easter so much more powerful and reinvigorating.

And so, I start with my own Lenten journey. I have made several personal committments to attempt to shrug off some of the things in life that pull me away from Christ. And I've made some decisions on ways to "give up" some things that I say are less important than God, but maybe - just maybe - need a correction in priority. And - and this effects you, my gentle readers - I have made a committment or two that will effect this blog space.

I have recognized my own failure to write as much as I want, and since I have identified this as one of the spiritual gifts given to me by God, that neglect of writing is a sin. And so I am planning to make this blog space a bit more active over the next few weeks; a place of reflection and meditation and sharing.

It is my intent to write every few days, and specifically to reflect on the Stations of the Cross and the preparation for Easter. I've asked a few friends to spend this time contemplating the Stations with me; a few music-type friends who have shown an interest in finding some new expressions of the journey Christ made on Good Friday, from the garden to the tomb. I can't be sure anything musically will come from this, but there is a hope to have something to present to others by this time next year...music, words, reflections...maybe even some photos or art work.