During Lent, the Church gives us an opportunity each year to experience hardship, as minimal as it might be, in order to exercise our will and choose discomfort as a means to deepen devotion to our Lord.
WASHINGTON, D.C. (Catholic Online) - Several years ago my son, David, and I were talking about a movie he had just seen. The setting of the movie was a war in the middle ages.
"Dad," he said at one part of our discussion, "if I were alive during this time, do you know what I would want to be?"
"What's that?" I replied, thinking he would have dreams of being a powerful general or heroic captain.
"I would want to be a foot soldier."
"Why is that?" I said, being taken back just a little.
"I would want to be a foot soldier," David said quite deliberately, "so I could find out what I'm made of."
I thought a lot about that exchange over the years. How many times do we look at different times and places in history and wonder how we would perform in those circumstances?
The history of the Church is filled with accounts of extreme hardship, persecution, and sacrifice. St. Paul, our special focus this year, described his life for the Gospel in II Corinthians 11:23-28.
"Are they ministers of Christ? (I am talking like an insane person.) I am still more, with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, far worse beatings, and numerous brushes with death.
"Five times at the hands of the Jews I received forty lashes minus one.
"Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I passed a night and a day on the deep; on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my own race, dangers from Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers at sea, dangers among false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many sleepless nights, through hunger and thirst, through frequent fastings, through cold and exposure.
"And apart from these things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches."
Reading those words leaves me with a haunting question - how would I have done as St. Paul's companion?
Certainly, there is a grace given by God to meet extraordinary circumstances. Yet, the importance of persistence and a resolute heart is ever present.
While we may never have to experience those kinds of trials, the Church gives us an opportunity each year to experience hardship, as minimal as it might be, in order to exercise our will and choose discomfort as a means to deepen devotion to our Lord.
While Lent is a time of self-examination, it is also a time to identify with the sufferings of Christ through self-denial. As the Catechism states, "By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert." (CCC #540)
Lent is our time to see what we are made of. We are placed in a more hostile environment through fasting, abstinence and implementing additional devotional disciplines.
Our choices can involve food, certain luxuries, and changes in schedule. The intent is not just to disrupt our lives but to fasten our hearts more closely to the Lord. Like our Lord in the wilderness, we can feel the pangs of withdrawal from those things which we have come to enjoy.
I will vs. I want
Our daily rhythm of life, when interrupted, can be a real challenge. We enjoy certain tastes in food, certain programs on the television, and certain fun events in our schedule. In Lent, we challenge these earthly pleasures through abstinence and fasting. We pit the "I want" part of our soul against the "I will" or "I choose."
What most of us find is that the "want" in us can be much stronger than the "will." Do you wonder what you're made of? Heroic actions, whether we are preaching the Gospel on Mars Hill with St. Paul or simply rising early for Mass before work, begins with a choice.
Several years ago, while a Protestant pastor, I challenged my congregation to a special type of fast - a media fast - where we turned off the TV, the radio, etc. and filled those times with Scripture and prayer as a part of our self-denial. What an experience!
Each of us found this activity very revealing as to how much we wanted to fulfill our wants. Not only did we want to be entertained, but we wanted our world to be constantly filled with sights and sounds. Lengthy attempts at solitude caused our silence actually to become deafening as we sought to read, to pray, or just sit quietly before the Lord.
Adoration, our time alone with Jesus, is transformational. Yet, just sitting in Church before the Blessed Sacrament can be hard for many of us. We are used to activity and noise. We are multi-tasking while being bombarded by multi-media. Yet, it is in these quiet moments, away from all the distractions and dissonance that we can clearly hear the gentle whisper of God.
Self-denial should not be just an annual event. Hopefully, the times we spend in Lent, learning to give up and give in, will lead to more regular times of quiet devotion.
Think on these things
The Apostle Paul understood the rigors of life and the patterns of behavior that can manifest from our daily dose of humanity. While in jail, a place of true suffering, he wrote to the Church at Philippi, injecting a strong admonition that would help cleanse the mind and heart from the impurity to which they were exposed.
He wrote, "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you." (Philippians 4:7-8)
Particularly today, with all the economic upheaval and political tension, the news - and even our conversation - is fear-filled and faith-deprived. Lent is a wonderful time to turn off the bad news and get into the Good News." This is our opportunity to set new practices in place. We can establish new habits, making time to meditate on the Scriptures, praying, and offering ourselves in great measures of devotion. We can fill our minds with those things that are truly praiseworthy.
During our Lenten Observance, we can overturn many of the negative influences we are experiencing by simply heeding the call of St. Paul to think dwell upon the things of God.
The Lenten "Fiat"
As a Catholic convert nothing has taken hold in my heart stronger than the "fiat" of Mary. After decades of living in Protestant denial her significant role in salvation history, I am caught up in the wonder and thrill of her "let it be."
A young woman was willing to risk it all with no understanding of what the future would hold. She just knew God had spoken, so she said yes and bring salvation into the world through her womb.
Today, her constant prayer is that faithful sons and daughters of God would also offer their "fiat" to Him, consecrating their lives to Christ and living only for Him no matter what their secular vocation would be.
The world will be changed more through the obedience of men and women in the course of their daily lives than through a cadre of priests marching through the streets. Should the laity ever discover the real power of "fiat" in changing the course of human history, our culture would never be the same again.
Resolute, unreserved, whole-hearted consecration by the Church militant would be a force like none other. As our Holy Father, John Paul II said, "Are you capable of risking your life for someone? Do it for Christ."
We may not know what it would like to be as a foot soldier in the middle ages or one of the disciples spreading the gospel after Christ's passion, death and resurrection. We may not experience the same weariness, weakness and malnutrition suffered by our Lord in the wilderness.
We can know, however, what it is like to deny ourselves of comforts and conveniences in the midst of our everyday life. We can choose to give more of our day and our devotion to the Lord.
Randy Sly is the Associate Editor of Catholic Online
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