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February 10, 2013

Lent: being a disciple

Bishop Timothy DohertyBy Bishop Timothy Doherty

This Year of Faith gives new light to Lenten discipline. Being a disciple is offering oneself to be a learner. Our core Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving should carry us beyond what we already know. While these customary practices do affect our moral character, we should expect them to refine us as believers. In some ways they make us dissatisfied (a.k.a. repentant) with the state of our personal faith. This should not seem strange. We would all like to be better in our friendships, jobs, hobbies, and so forth.

Prayer is a response to God’s initiative. Grace starts prayers and praying. We stop imagining that prayer is about what words and rituals we want to do, and we try to appreciate what God seeks to do in us. Our prayer takes on a huge layer of listening (a.k.a obedience) in the present moment. Who is the person my vocation is calling me to be now, not three years ago, not two years from now? Am I mindful of my situation, my fears, my unique contributions?

Fasting from food and periodically abstaining from meat are beneficial. But we mischaracterize them as private disciplines. Their Lenten significance makes us mindful that we are part of a community of faith. We do these things to be mindful that God sustains believers as members of a people. And these privations cause us to think of those members who haven’t enough to sustain them. Beside efforts to feed the hungry, fasting should make us grateful for our food, and remind us that our hunger for God and moral uprightness should direct our lives. Those little Rice Bowls from Catholic Relief Services, for example, give a global significance to fasting.

In my opinion, fasting is necessary to make us mindful of what it means to live within physical limits. A fellow bishop notes that we forget what that feels like unless we unplug from our electronic devices for an hour or a day. I would add that we cannot know if we have become practically addicted to some thing or some routine unless we interrupt it.

Almsgiving is money and resources given to destitute and needy people. These monies are not for school supplies, playground equipment or other gestures. The point is, if we don’t know people who are hungry or homeless, we have to find them and see them, and not in a documentary or a church magazine.

Our country recently witnessed some public conversation that spoke harshly of whether people deserve — or merit, or are entitled to — help in attaining life’s necessities. Perhaps during the political campaign season, we uttered judgments that disciples might shy away from. Almsgiving, like the Dickensian ghosts of Christmas present and Christmas future, forces us to check our faith-eyes so we can see what those spirits see.

Lent is for refreshing the refinements it brings to real faith. The three disciplines are personal helps and church community builders. We undertake them with joy because they make us more aware of Christ among us, both at their beginning and in their final goals. They are difficult only in the sense that they reveal to us, as people and as Church, who we really are and who we might be.

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