I like Lent. I always have. By a curious Providence, I have always associated it with a period in my life (long before I was Catholic) when I discovered that things like poverty and being out of work and trusting God for your next meal could be refreshing and adventuresome and part of the joy of youth when the world is at your feet and all your road lies before you. The Franciscanism of Lent and this particular time of year (in the northern hemisphere) — when the whole world is waking up again and Spring is peeping up through the thawing soil and the trees are just starting to be edged with green again — is something I love. I love the sharp astringent quality of Lent. I love the fasting and the Back to Basics plainness of it.
I was given another reminder of that beautiful simplicity in a lovely, simple conversation I had with a complete stranger — a 66-year-old grandmother who has never been baptised but who is now trying to understand this whole Christian Thing and who popped on to my Facebook page after I had remarked simply that “I like Lent and I’m looking forward to it.” She asked, with artless simplicity:
You may not even begin to believe this, and it is actually difficult to say but I don’t even know what “lent” is.
It is a wonderful thing to me when somebody just asks a simple question without some agenda behind it other than an honest desire for Truth. So I replied:
Lent is the forty day period from Ash Wednesday (March 1 this year) to the Triduum (beginning on Holy Thursday). It is devoted to prayer, fasting. almsgiving, and joining with Jesus in his time in the desert.
The lady (her name is Nancy) wrote back:
Thank you very much Mark Shea. You mean you must fast (that’s good), what’s aims giving? And Jesus was in the desert then? So he was miserable, probably extremely thirsty, etc., so we should pray for him? Is this majority Catholic, or does it involve most or all religions? I have never been baptised but I’m working on it.
The question about “aims giving” delighted me, but I think it was when Nancy, in her beautiful love and empathy, wondered if we should pray for Jesus because he was suffering in the desert that my heart melted completely and I wept. I’m weeping again writing this. It is a rare gift to meet such a good heart with such decent, childlike impulses of goodness. I realised I had met somebody extraordinary and so wrote her back, mostly because it seemed such a good soul needed to be given her bearings as well as I could for her. I replied:
It’s always good to ask questions when you don’t know something. No shame in that. Almsgiving is the act of sharing what we have with those who need it.
Jesus deliberately went into the desert to be tempted for forty days after his baptism. It was his act of identification both with Israel (which spent forty years in the desert during the Exodus) and with us as sinners in the desert of our own sins. You can read about it in Luke 4:1–13 and Matthew 4:1–11. Mark 1:12-13 mentions it briefly but gives almost no detail.
No, the point is not to pray for Jesus (though that is awfully sweet of you and speaks well of your good heart). Jesus, as Risen Lord and God, does not need our prayers. Rather, it is to pray to him and ask the help of his Spirit as we seek to imitate him in denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following him.
Lent is a major part of the Christian calendar for the Catholic Church and all the apostolic Churches (those with bishops in historical descent from the apostles). It is also an important season for a number of Protestant Churches. It’s only a Christian thing. Other religions also have times of prayer and fasting (Jews observe Yom Kippur, for instance, and Muslims observe Ramadan).
Then I thought to myself, “She’s a complete newbie to all this. She needs some kind of introduction to the Big Picture of Catholic Faith and how it relates to Life, the Universe, and Everything.” So I wrote again:
It’s not really about things like Lent and such, but a very handy and easy-to-read book that will help you get your bearings as you try to get a bead on the Catholic Faith is this one by the delightful and compulsively readable Peter Kreeft: Fundamentals of the Faith: Essays in Christian Apologetics
She replied sweetly:
Wow Mark Shea. First thing I want you to know is I don’t say things I don’t mean. Your msg meant a lot to me. You are an extremely sincere person and you don’t see that very often. Also extremely knowledgeable and intelligent. Your message meant a lot me and every word made so much sense. I really “took it to heart”, and will never forget what you had to say. Now I’M LOOKING FORWARD TO LENT, all because of your fantastic comment. So, thanks a lot for your message, not only did I learn so much but also it came at the most perfect time. Thank you very much for the book selection.
And I replied:
God love you, dear! May God guide you toward his Son Jesus Christ.
It was a very simple and brief conversation. Thousands of other Catholics could have supplied the same information I did (and have in countless other such conversations with thousands of other inquirers all over the Interwebz or in workplaces, schools or coffee klatches). But it never gets old for me. Watching somebody who just wants to know the truth have an encounter with the gospel and, above all, watching the lights come on as they take it in and make it part of their hearts … well, there’s nothing I find more thrilling and moving. I’m grateful to God for this Providential gift of an encounter with Nancy.
Have a good Lent!