Today is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. It a period of forty days which lasts until sundown on Holy Thursday, and commemorates the forty days Christ spent in the desert where he prayed, fasted, and was tempted by the Devil. It is a time for us to embrace a period of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and generally living a more simple or even spartan lifestyle. The purpose for doing so is to diminish the influence of the things in our lives that amount to the “dust” and “straw” (á la St Thomas Aquinas) of daily life, while at the same time increasing the time and attention we spend building up our faith.
Traditionally people to give up various things during Lent such as certain foods, habits, or activities as a means of developing self-mastery through both physical and spiritual mortification. However, often times simply saying “no” to something is not enough for some and they need something to say “yes” to fill the void, so it is also customary for some people to take on a penance or commit to some other faith-fortifying activity during Lent.
Usually this can include such things as volunteering your time and talents to some charitable cause, making an effort to attend daily mass, and dedicating time for daily prayer and spiritual reading. Other activities I have known people to do during Lent was to visit the lonely or elderly, help someone finish a project they have been putting off because of lack of time and help, or even working overtime at their job or taking on a part-time one in order to donate the money to some charity or to help out someone in need.
Obviously the list of options will be as varied as the people out there, but I will offer three suggestions which all involve converting or sanctifying the ordinary actions or activities in our daily lives. Activities and actions that far too many of us have allowed to be shaped by the ways of the world and sometimes pure laziness, and which have a spiritually stultifying affect on our lives.
1. Converting the Senses
St. Thomas Aquinas says in the Summa that “there is nothing in our minds that has not first come through our senses.” Thus, one of the first thing we can do to sanctify our daily lives is to curtail the useless noise and freneticism that we fill our days with. The most obvious elephant currently in our cultural room is the ubiquity of screens that we carry with us or are surrounded by, as well as the ear buds or headphones that we wear to tune out the world around us.
While the silence may be hard for some to handle at first, it is an acquired taste worth pursuing. For those that live in louder urban areas, some had tried playing white noise in the background like the sounds of oceans, rain, or nature available for free online on channels such as Calmed by Nature or The Vault of Ambience. Some find it a pleasant way to change a room’s mood, others find it a distraction. However, the point is to radically change the kind and amount of material that bombard our senses, by managing what is for most people the number one source of it.
2. Converting Our Interactions
The first thing that usually happens when people eliminate or reduce their screen time, is that they discover how much they have been using it as an excuse to avoid interacting with other people, especially (and regrettably) with their own family members. While some may find this distressing at first, it is the perfect time to reforge or create new bonds with those in our lives, and in ways that require us to look at and speak with one another. Activities such as reading to each other, engaging in craft activities, or my long-time go to, bringing back game nights.
However, sometimes you may just want to sit around with your family or call someone up, and have an actual conversation with them. It still amazes me how many young people I know, especially teens, who are incapable of having an intelligent or engaging conversation. It’s virtually a lost art that needs to be reclaimed, and what better time than Lent than to have our kids mortify their self-centeredness and impatience, by just sitting and talking with them? To teach and encourage them to speak clearly and engagingly, to balance speaking and listening, and to boost their confidence by teaching them the fine art of witticism.
3. Concerting the Memory and Imagination
Of course, even with the preceding suggestions, there will be times when we are alone, engaged in prayer or just left with our own thoughts, memories, and our imaginations. This can be a trying time as all of us contain within us the thoughts and memories of the lower points in our lives. Moreover, it is no exaggeration to say that all of us and our kids have been exposed to images that we ought not have seen or experienced. From the salacious and the deviant, to violent and the macabre, and to the just plain useless and moronic, they have all shaped us in ways that more often than not take us away from our faith. Lent is the perfect time to sanctify our hearts and minds, for out of them come all of the words we use and actions we do.
In Book 10 of St. Augustine’s Confessions, Augustine seems to take a bizarre segue from the story of his life to talking about memory and time. However, a careful reading of it shows what he is getting at, he is, in his own way, wrestling with St. Paul’s words, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” as it applied to his life until his conversion. One reason Book 10 of Confessions is about time and memory, is because Augustine rightly understood that while his sinful actions were in the past, his memories of them them were with him in the present in his mind. Thus, they too needed to be converted and brought to heel by God’s grace.
All of us experience this in life, when he think of the dumb or sinful things we have done in the past. However, it can be cringeworthy to watch anyone who led a wayward life but later turned it around, to talk about their “fond memories” of their past or to excuse it on the basis that they were young and foolish. St Augustine would admonish such sentiments and say that how we see our past also needs to be examined and forgiveness sought or amends made if needed. Lent is a perfect time to surrender our willfulness, and to bring our thoughts, memories, and imaginations under the lordship of Christ.
We Are in Entering the Desert, Are You Ready?
Years ago when I was in college and making my way back into the church, I used to watch this Fox TV series called Millennium. It starred Lance Henriksen as Frank Black, a former FBI agent and criminal profiler who had a psychic ability to see into the minds of the serial killers he pursued. Sometimes the show dealt with some spiritual issues that seemed odd for broadcast television but fit right in with the religious fervor that was present in the waning days of the 20thcentury.
During a very cleverly-written Halloween episode called “The Curse of Frank Black”, Frank starts seeing the letters “ACTS” and the number “268” all over the place. While out trick-or-treating with his daughter we see, in a flashback, Frank as a kid trick-or-treating at the house of a local recluse and severely depressed WW2 vet. He speaks with the young Frank and says that he is dying to know whether, “there's a better place than this and that they're (his old war buddies) waiting for him.” Later in the episode it is revealed that the vet killed himself, but also that Frank figures out what the letters and the number mean, it’s Acts 26:8, “Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?”
Later that night, Frank hears noises in his attic and when he investigates, who should he encounter, but the spirit of the dead vet himself. The vet lights up a cigarette and tells Frank,
“that night I was so dying to know if the dead can return, if there was anything afterwards, remember? The time when you're really asking the question and when you really need to know, goes by...puff...like nothing. But you know the answer. Forever.”
Then in a way Dante would be proud of, the spirit of the vet holds up his cigarette and says, “Imagine having to suck on this for all of eternity.” He then goes on to tell Frank that he was allowed to come back to warn him that “he” (the Devil) has been watching him and sees that Frank is getting close to figuring out “his” plans. So he makes him an offer,
“Give up the fight, sit it out...go back to your wife, and to your daughter, and to your puppy, and to your little yellow house, and just live out, a nice normal life. And there's gonna be a place for all three of you afterwards. A place, believe me, where a lot of souls wish they could be. But you pass on this, and you're going farther than I have ever been...so what I am asking of you is really simple, sit back and do nothing. Anyone can do it. Hell, most people do.”
All Frank had to do was just live a “normal” life and his salvation was assured. Of course the devil is a liar and a murderer, so such a deal would be worthless, but just like Frank all of us (and our whole culture) have also been offered such a deal. The thing is, far too many people take it, and do as little as possible when it comes to their faith and the state of their soul.
Lent is a time prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and rededicating ourselves to our faith; but it is also a time of temptation. The Devil is prowling around and tempting us, usually not with blatant and egregious sins, but small ones that add up over time and leave us lost in the desert and easy prey. So this Lent, commit yourself to not “give up the fight” or “sit it out” but instead to fortify your faith in small ways that will over time add up to (hopefully) sainthood.
Photo Credit- dominion.com