The Catechism of the Catholic Church, first published in 1992, says practically nothing about the season of Lent. But it includes in the article entitled "The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation" (par. 1422-1498) a section on "The Many Forms of Penance in Christian Life" which shows the original wider variety of penitential practices I alluded to in my Feb. 23 article on Saint Benedict and the "Forgotten Aspects of Lent." Notice that in the in the following two paragraphs from the Catechism "fasting" comes up only once in each. The other practices almost all have to do with our relationships. Perhaps a look at these excerpts from the Catechism can help us think of some creative ways of making Lent more than just a time for "giving things up," but a time of real conversion.
The interior penance of the Christian can be expressed in many and various ways. Scripture and the Fathers insist above all on three forms, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, which express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others. Alongside the radical purification brought about by Baptism or martyrdom they cite as means of obtaining forgiveness of sins: effort at reconciliation with one's neighbor, tears of repentance, concern for the salvation of one's neighbor, the intercession of the saints, and the practice of charity "which covers a multitude of sins." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1434)
The seasons and days of penance in the course of the liturgical year (Lent, and each Friday in memory of the death of the Lord) are intense moments of the Church's penitential practice. These times are particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies, pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works). (Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1438)
First, notice that the purpose of the traditional forms of penance, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, is to " express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others." This means that Lent, our season of penance, is for the purpose of conversion. But conversion is not supposed to be a temporary condition, is it? Yet many of us take on Lenten practices as self-contained projects that are designed to last for forty days and then come to an end at Easter. The emphasis on giving up certain things for the forty days distracts us, it seems to me, from the central ongoing Christian project of conversion which is, after all, never finished. In the paragraphs cited above we find other expressions of penance such as "effort at reconciliation with one's neighbor," "concern for the salvation of one's neighbor" and "the practice of charity," which do not lend themselves to the notion of a temporary effort which lasts for only forty days.
Your Unique Call to Conversion
Alongside the traditional practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, then, each of us might look at our own life and come up with some unique practices based on such things as "what I'm most grateful for" or "what I'm most passionate about." If I realize that I delight in listening to music, I might express my gratitude (my conversion) by contributing to a charity for the hearing impaired; if I am deeply grateful for my grandchildren, I might express my "practice of charity" this Lent by volunteering to sort baby clothes at a local shelter for pregnant girls. Maybe one of my great joys was a wonderful visit to Yellowstone National Park; so I offer to show my slides at a local senior citizens' home. Maybe there's a certain relative who I just can't stand -- for plenty of good reasons -- so I decide to start to pray hard for him every day.
These practices definitely fall under the definition of "fraternal charity" in the church's traditional list of penitential practices. But in addition, when I come home from the senior citizens' residence my fasting and Lenten devotions will take on a new dimension, one which points me further along the Pilgrim Road of constant conversion well past the end of Lent and toward the eternal Easter where all of us, rich and poor, friends and enemies will be united in the risen Lord's boundless victorious Love.
In the past I've definitely tended to spend my Lent "inside the box;" what about you? Does "Lent outside the box" make sense to you? Or are you more comfortable with the fasting and prayer approach? Have you ever tried some non-traditional, more personalized expression of conversion during Lent?