By Paul Gray
Spring! The first glimpse of the bright yellow and purple crocus, the sight of the soft yellow jonquil and delicate white snowdrop pushing their way through the cold, hard ground—all signaling longer days, brighter sunshine, abundant new life. We breathe a sigh of relief, for winter is all but gone.
The word Lent, one of the sacred words in Christian vocabulary, connotes something quite different from this season characterized by the appearance of delightful flowers: Lent is a serious, even somber, season for arduous spiritual work leading to the transformation of Easter.
To accomplish this work, the Christian tradition has recommended three practices from earliest times—prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. For most of my life, I tended to see these as designed for me, to strengthen my character and resolve, to rid myself of spiritual flabbiness, to build spiritual muscle. I have typically approached Ash Wednesday with the determination that this year I will overcome my weaknesses and sinful tendencies, succeeding, as did the great saints. Almost as much as New Year’s Day, Ash Wednesday has been about resolutions, about succeeding, about me. And like most of my New Year’s resolutions, those of Lent tend to have an equally short lifespan.
Enriching your prayer life. So I have now decided to see the three recommended practices in a different light, changing the focus from myself to others. I’m not at all saying that everyone should do the same, but I’m approaching Lent in a different way—a way that I hope will surprise me when Easter has come. If I’m right, I will have helped not only a lot of other people, but myself as well. It’s like taking Jesus seriously when he urges his disciples to “love one another” or to “give without counting the cost.” I want to think about how best to let his words have their full impact in me. Perhaps this perspective will help you experience Lent in a newer, richer way.
As I think about all of this, the parable of the Good Samaritan comes to mind. Beyond what commentators tell us about the meaning of this parable (cf. Luke 10:25-37), it is fruitful to imagine what the Samaritan was thinking, and how that thinking influenced his actions. While the Samaritan was focused on the injured stranger, caught up in helping the one he had found, he was no doubt being
deeply affected himself. His own plans and concerns were put on hold. He totally immersed himself in the care of the stranger. And in doing so, he found favor with God. I know that whenever I have allowed myself to be lost in helping another, I have been deeply changed by the experience.
Not by accident, those who passed by the injured man in Luke’s Gospel are identified as a priest and a Levite, surely two men with their own spiritual agendas on their minds. Paying attention to those spiritual agendas, they passed by the very opportunity that would have helped them to grow spiritually. I wonder how many people in need I passed by in previous Lents while I was trying to carry out my resolutions to grow spiritually. I offer the reflections in this PrayerNote in the hope that they will help you transform this Lent into both a time of preparation for Easter and for drawing closer to those who need your love and care.
Finding and Focusing on Others. Jesus said, “Look around. The fields are ripe for harvesting” (John 4:35). Similarly, those in need are all around us. We simply have to look to discover them. Spiritual writers, such as David Knight, have increased the scope of our search by pointing out that, “Accountability for the environment is a basic moral imperative.” Caring for the totality of the world around us is our task. In reflecting on this, I’m reminded of our youngest daughter who regularly volunteers four hours each week at the humane society as a demonstration of her caring. You might choose a homeless shelter—the Internet can serve as a useful tool in discovering and deciding on a person or group in need, or a worthy cause. Just remember, the need may be much closer than we realize, perhaps a neighbor or family member.
Learning more about people in need is the first step. Once I discover a person, group, or cause, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving can guide my efforts to help them. We’re not told that he did, but we can imagine the Samaritan asking the injured person where his wounds were. Just by knowing more, we are able to enter into the suffering. By doing that, we become part of the solution.
Praying. Praying specifically for the person or cause over a period of time draws me in even further. In praying for them, I am united to them in their suffering, and I am opened to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Praying involves me in new levels of empathy and compassion. Whether I simply pray the Lord’s Prayer, the rosary, or simply sit in God’s presence with the thought of the person or cause in my mind, asking in my own words for God’s intervention, I am making a difference. The great priestscientist, Teilhard de Chardin, once prayed, “I want to be the first to seek, to sympathize, and to suffer; the first to unfold and to sacrifice myself; to become more widely human and more nobly of the earth than any of the world’s servants.” Inspired by Chardin, I can get involved in the concrete situation of another.
While we can’t do everything for everyone, we can pray for a specific person or group, choosing to give ourselves to the resolution of the need when we see a way. The key is taking every need to heart and trusting God to show us where and how we can make a difference.
Fasting. A friend once told me that she looks forward to the fasting of Lent because she loses weight. While that might be improvement for her, it’s not the sort of improvement that fasting is for. The season of Lent calls us to a self-imposed discipline meant to purify or reorient us, converting us from selfishness to generosity of spirit and practice. Fasting enables me to feel what others may be feeling in a much more intense and close-up way. If I fast for a specific person or cause, the thought of that person or cause keeps me engaged. I tire of fasting much too quickly when it is merely a discipline to make me better. If I go without food for a short period of time, I may feel a twinge of hunger that physically reminds me of the daily pain that a poor child in New York or Calcutta or Gaza City lives with day in and day out. Then I can be moved to action. With a little creative investigation, I can get beyond the effort of fasting to the generosity it is designed to produce.
Almsgiving. As I pray and fast for a particular person, group, or cause, I quickly develop empathy for them, seeing their needs more clearly. I will likely be moved to contribute to ease their suffering in whatever way I can, and to the extent that I can.
Sometimes we can fall into the trap of believing that we can only make a difference or ease someone’s suffering by doing something grandiose or expensive. In the Scriptures, however, Jesus reminds us that it can be the little things that count the most.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta reminds us, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can all do things with great love.” Whatever I contribute will work to their benefit, and I will have a sense, not just that I have contributed to a remote charitable organization, but that I have helped the specific person or group I have been praying and fasting for throughout Lent.
Lifting your heart to God. Praying, fasting, almsgiving: it’s intriguing to see how these three ancient Lenten practices are interconnected. Taken seriously, one naturally leads to the other. When we are attentive to the needs of others, rather than our own need for self-improvement, we are transformed, and so is a small part of our world. As author Joan Chittister says, “Those are holy who know that they have been brought into this world in order to do something for the rest of it.” This year, perhaps the crocus and jonquil will serve as sacred reminders to look outward.