Father Tom's Notes
Ugh… Lent! Have you ever heard someone utter these words? Or said them yourself? Contemporary Lenten practice, however, pales in comparison to that of my youth: as a child in Catholic school we attended Mass every day in Lent, so that meant that we had to carry our breakfast as well our lunch those days. (This was in the final days of the Eucharistic fast that began at midnight the night before.) When the required Eucharistic fast was later relaxed to three hours, we simply moved our daily Mass later in the morning, to just before lunch.
Each year on Ash Wednesday, our Gospel passage presents us with the three classic Lenten disciplines: praying, fasting and almsgiving. Prayer was built into the rhythm of a Catholic boy’s life; almsgiving was also encouraged through our missionary boxes in the classroom in which we saved our pennies in order to buy “pagan babies” from other parts of the world. This meant simply that we were supporting the work of missionaries who baptized infants as part of their priestly ministry.
Among the disciplines, it was the fasting that was most difficult. My Mother was something of an expert at Lenten disciplines, especially when it came to fasting, or “giving up” something for Lent. Each year on Shrove Tuesday she collected from us our list of Lenten penances, for which she became The Enforcer. And if your list was insufficient, Mom was certain to add another discipline or two, that were always harder than what you would choose for yourself, so you’d better have prepared well. At supper that evening we would share what was on our list, but then we were not to mention it again because, according to Mom, this was tantamount to bragging. And if you complained… “Well,” she said, “you’ve just spent half the Grace.”
We would give up all those things that children think of giving up: candy, going to the movies, Saturday morning cartoons (we weren’t permitted to watch TV on school nights anyway) or all of the above. However, Mom wanted us to concentrate on what she called “positive penance” which we disliked even more. This would include doing homework without being nagged, keeping our bedrooms tidy, shoveling snow for the grouchy old lady who lived behind us without being paid, and so forth.
But how shall we handle the Lenten discipline of fasting beyond the food requirements in our adult years without Mother hovering about? We can take a good look at our lives and consider what we do too much of… what we do too little of… what we do that is truly displeasing to God. With the voice of my Mother guiding me, I make the following suggestions: Try not to criticize or correct your spouse… try to avoid gossip in all its forms… try to look beyond over people’s faults with charity… give your children and grandchildren the attention and affirmation they need… think of something uplifting to say… call someone who is feeling some isolation from the pandemic. And here’s a big one: try to put your cell phone out of reach except for real necessities.
The purpose of Lent is, of course, to help us to grow in holiness, which can be challenging. But here, the end justifies the means. So get out there and suffer! It'll make you a better person.