Return of the Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni - 1773

Evolution for the Catholic Student

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Tuesday, February 14, 2012



Lent is just around the corner.  Ash Wednesday is next week.  I work at a Catholic school and one interesting phenomenon is that during Lent the teachers’ lounge is overflowing (more than usual) with cookies, cupcakes, candy and other temptations.  Another interesting phenomenon is that any comment about it draws the admonition that for an adult to give up chocolate or sweets for Lent displays an immature spirituality.

          The point they’re trying to make is valid, but the conclusions are faulty.  As we approach the season of Lent it would be good to consider what we will be offering.  Traditionally we think in terms of giving something up for Lent, and it’s true that if we just drop some habit that returns after Easter without any personal growth, the value is limited.

          Part of our discipline is purely the sacrifice of giving something up as an offering to God.  If we have a particular affinity for chocolate, that can be a valid sacrifice.  More than that, our Lenten offering should provide lasting spiritual growth.  Certainly, self-mastery is a trait our entire culture can do with much more of.  The discipline it takes to abstain from something we normally indulge in helps develop a self-mastery and strength we can apply to other areas of our lives, particularly the resistance of sin.  That’s one of the beauties of fasting.

          But my point is not that everyone should give up chocolate for Lent and be done with it.  We must prayerfully consider what offering we want to make to God and what will be most beneficial to our long-term spiritual growth.  Perhaps our Lent can open us to living with a more penitential character the entire year.

          I used to fast quite often.  As I’ve grown older it has gotten harder and harder.  But it’s not age that’s the culprit, it’s the increased workload and three small boys, with the resulting lack of sleep.  Struggling with fasting is not bad, but it seemed physically impossible for me to maintain the discipline at the level I had before.  At first I was disappointed in myself, but I prayerfully accepted that these were real limitations and I had to accept reality.

          However, this did not mean that I could not still develop a penitential spirit.  Father Hubert Van Zeller explains in his book Spirit of Penance, Path to God that we have opportunities all the time to offer things to God in a spirit of penance.  Many mothers in years past gave the advice, “Offer it up,” to their children when they experienced some form of suffering.  This is excellent advice, but not just for children.

          We have sufferings small or large all day long.  There are constant inconveniences that we can turn into prayers of penance.  The car that cuts us off in traffic, or the clerk who answers us rudely, perhaps the waiter who messes up our order, all give us an opportunity for penance.  One of the spiritual works of mercy is to bear wrongs patiently.  But we don’t even have to be wronged.  The plans that had to be changed, the stubbed toe, the broken transmission, are also opportunities.  If we develop a penitential spirit we can bear these things with patience and love, and offer them, large or small, in reparation for sin, or for the conversion of sinners, or the intentions of the Holy Father, or the souls in Purgatory, or simply for the love of God.

          Fr. Van Zeller points out that these penances have the added benefit of our offering our will, as well. When I fast, I choose my own penance.  But I don’t choose the broken down car or to be treated disrespectfully, I receive them.  If I offer them willingly to God, I offer my will as well, since I accept the penances given to me rather than choosing them for myself.

          Without question fasting is valuable.  So are the sacrifice, prayer and alms we offer during Lent.  Perhaps one of our disciplines this Lent can be to live a penitential spirit all the time, and offer our sufferings and inconveniences to God.  This can certainly become a habit that will provide lasting spiritual growth.