When I was a little girl, I remember asking my father whether the local police came in to enforce the keeping of Lent.
I think I had been shocked to see some children in the street (in the days when kids were free to roam around on late summer days) licking ice creams and munching Violet Crumbles. He laughed, and explained to me that although Lent was a shared time for all Christians, different people pursued different ways to observe the Lenten triad of almsgiving, abstinence and prayer.
I learned then, an early lesson in not peering around at other people’s Lenten practice and the inadvisability of a theocratic police force.
At the time, Dad would gather his brood of smallish children together and collectively we would decide what “we were doing for Lent.” We then decided on a shared practice: such delicacies as ice creams and Violet Crumbles were out; and the collecting of money for missions, special efforts to be patient and generous with each other, and some extra weekday Masses were in.
I imagined in my eight year-old way, that the wider Australian culture would see the wisdom of my family’s way in Lenten time. Even some of our liberal Jewish neighbours seemed to be “doing” something like us at the time. There was a sense of solidarity of practice and memory in Lent, which is in fact more profound that I realised all those years ago.
Incidently, Natasha Marsh, on this website, has suggested some really imaginative and helpful ways to refresh your “what to do” in Lent in.
This year, I notice, Gen-Y and millennial Catholics around the world have been posting on Facebook and Instagram, snaps of their foreheads en-crossed with whopping black on Ash Wednesday. Some of their agnostic or lukewarm friends are even joining in. When I was a kid, the ashes were demure grey blobs, more in keeping with the WASP-ish sensibilities of Melbourne at the time.
Some might dismiss this as a typical gesture by the “selfie” generation or even of the Pharisees, who Jesus reproached for showing off their good deeds. I think rather, the trend, betokens a desire to capture the shared nature of “Lenten” time. There is a genuine sense of here “we” go, all together on the journey of forty days. Are we seeing via screen shots a search of solidarity of practice and symbol? A shared pot of lentils in place of degustation plates and cocktails (lentil mean lens … but here’s a Lenten recipe).
This shared and populated start to Lent and the ideals about what we are “going to do” are the diving board we need into the deeper waters of the liturgical season. Practice is important. It is the way fallible embodied creatures tithe to God our attention, our bodies and one of our most precious, counted and limited assets: our own lifespan, our time.
The American Jesuit theologian, Fr Edward Oakes (now deceased): noted that Blessed John Henry Newman, one of the master theologians of liturgical time, preached often on the importance of Lent and the fine balance needed for the penitent to get Lent right: the temptation to lose sight of Divine love and grace on one hand or being slack and indulgent about our own need for full-blooded repentance and transformation on the other.
The balance and the interior conversion, is in the end, not about how much we “do” but how much we become. The Catholic Catechism teaches (CCC 1431) that grace-driven penance brings us to a “radical reorientation” of our relationships, thinking, actions and loves it brings us back to the reality of who we are created to be. Preaches Newman in one of his pastoral homilies:
“We have stony hearts, hearts as hard as the highways; the history of Christ makes no impression on them. And yet, if we would be saved, we must have tender, sensitive, living hearts; our hearts must be broken, must be broken up like ground, and dug, and watered, and tended, and cultivated, till they become as gardens, gardens of Eden, acceptable to our God …”
Photo: licensed as per cc 2.0 (cropped, altered tone, contrast, colour, dodged)