Saturday, February 9, 2013


This entry was first posted three years ago, but I think it bears repeating. (You can look at other entries for Lent by clicking on the "Lent" label to the left of this column.)


Imagine celebrating Christmas alone, all by yourself. Each member of your family is doing his or her own Christmas in secret (or at least you presume they are), just as they had all gotten ready for Christmas individually, without a word about it to anyone. Or imagine Easter with each Christian marking the day with his or her own private, personal celebration, sharing nothing of the feast with others.

Many Christians who would find these two scenarios unthinkable, however, seem to have no trouble celebrating Lent privately, all by themselves, concentrating on their own secret observances and focused on their personal life of prayer and penitence.

We have pushed way into the background the fact that Lent was originally and still is a liturgical season, as much a part of the church’s communal public worship as Christmas or Easter. Over the centuries, however, many factors have conspired to bring about a “me-and-God” view of Lent, not the least of which is the overemphasis on the penitential side. If Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount that we must not let anyone else know when we are fasting or giving alms, and this is what Lent is all about, then Lent is a private affair.

When St. Benedict wrote about the observance of Lent the season was still marked by a wide variety of practices such as prayer and holy reading (See blog for Feb. 13, 2010), and was clearly considered a community affair. The entire chapter on Lent presumes that it is “the entire community” that is celebrating Lent, and speaks in terms of what “we” are to do during Lent. Toward the end of the chapter Benedict finally speaks of individual practices, “let each one deny himself some food, drink, sleep, needless talking and idle jesting,” but he immediately follows this with a stern warning: “Everyone should, however make known to the abbot what he intends to do, since it ought to be done with his prayer and approval. Whatever is undertaken without the permission of the spiritual father will be reckoned as presumption and vainglory, not deserving a reward.” In other words, since Lent is a community celebration no one is supposed to be celebrating a “private Lent” on the side.

Observing Lent as a private affair, however, fits perfectly into an age in which we are often isolated from one another by headphones, watching separate televisions in our rooms, even dialing up our individual preference on our separate video screen on an airplane. Private Lenten practices tailored to my needs? Sounds good to me!

I would like to suggest that it is worth trying to recover some more of the communal element of our Lenten celebration.

We decorate our homes for Christmas weeks ahead of time and put up Easter decorations of all sorts and no one bats an eye. What about a simple decoration or two in your house to remind the family (or just yourself if you live alone) that we’re celebrating the season of Lent together? Some touches of the color violet, for example, or an open bible placed in a prominent spot with a candle next to it. Or what about some simple practice such as saying grace or praying together as a family each day for a few minutes? What about agreeing that the family will not have dessert on Fridays in Lent as a communal practice of penance? Or arranging to eat a meal together now and then. We may be living more and more in isolation from one another, but we are still creatures who naturally create symbols and who crave community.

Some people who cannot get to mass on weekdays in Lent stay in touch with the wider church by reading the scripture passages assigned for mass for that day, knowing that they are hearing the same Word that their brothers and sisters are listening to around the world.


Fasting and almsgiving always went together in the early church. If you were eating and drinking less, then the money you saved on food was supposed to be given to the poor. Thus a very private act such as giving up a certain amount or kind of food had an effect in the wider community because it allowed you to give something more to the poor. Those mite boxes that were part of my childhood were a great opportunity to make Lent a communal event, although nobody ever pointed that out to me at the time. It never occurred to me that my coins actually went somewhere and were use to help other people.


In my Feb. 20, 2010 blog I gave a long quotation from the Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov. I want to cite one paragraph again here. “Loveless mortification can never lead to God. Saint Maximus says: "We shall be judged for the wrong we have done, but still more for the good we have neglected to do and for not loving our neighbor." Spiritual life today requires an asceticism that shields the soul from the world's pressures and calls for the overcoming of evil by the creation of good. This means it is never more than a means, a strategy. It is possible for a person to surround himself with an atmosphere of morbid fantasy, seeing nothing around him but sin and evil. But the ascesis of the gospel overcomes by excess, not of fear, but of overflowing love embracing the entire universe.”
How might we move toward a Lent of “overflowing love embracing the entire universe?” I would like to offer some thoughts just to get the ball rolling.


We could choose a Lenten practice that involves helping some particular person. Visiting my invalid aunt once a week or phoning a lonely friend, or calling on a former neighbor who is confined to a nursing home. The penance of giving up my time has now spread beyond me to become an act of love that brings joy to others.


We could make ours a more loving Lent by adopting a particular cause or charity during the season, donating time or money for the benefit of others whom we don’t even know.

There may be some global problem that particularly touches us but that frustrates us at the same time because there’s nothing much we can do about it. Child abuse, for example, or the fact that a huge fraction of the world’s population lacks safe drinking water. Besides looking for some small way we may actually help address that issue, we can also link some Lenten practice with that issue so that our vision of the world is broadened and our sensitivity to the world’s suffering grows toward “overflowing love embracing the entire universe.” For example, whenever I take a drink of cold water I may consciously remember the millions of people who have do not have decent water to drink. Or I can keep myself sensitive to the evil of child slavery by making a point of treating the children I meet as persons whose opinion matters to me and whose feelings I respect. This not only deepens my sensitivity to a world problem but helps a child experience God’s love firsthand.

I hope that these ideas may be of some use on your Lenten journey, or have at least provoked some thought. If you have some more ideas please contribute them below so others can benefit from them. After all, Lent IS a communal thing, right?

If you want, you can join our group of lenten pilgrims  who travel the 40 days together by reading the daily chapters in my book Pilgrim Road: A Benedictine Journey through Lent.

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