In a way it is a wonderful thing that Lent is imposed on us by the Church. For, left to ourselves, we would not fast or deepen our prayer life or make doing things for others a priority. We might think about these things, but like so much else in our spiritual lives, we think about them but fail to implement them. But the message of Ash Wednesday is clear: following the prophet Joel, it is a call to true repentance, to a reaffirmation of our faith, to curbing our bodily pleasures in order to grow spiritually, and to meditate on the saving acts of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
I would urge us all to keep a manly Lent. Now this can be misunderstood in the foolish gender sensitive age in which we live. The word “manly” is not the opposite of “womanly”. It is rather an adjective (or adverb) that pertains to strength, fortitude, fearlessness, clearness of vision and self-confidence. In this wise, St. Catherine of Siena was a manly saint whose womanhood was at the root of her courage and fidelity.
Whatever Lenten rule one adopts, it must include fasting, prayer and what is known as alms-giving, that is, acts of generosity that expect no reward. The wimpy current rules of the Church for fasting cannot be taken seriously by those who take Lent seriously. We all know that there are those who for physical reasons cannot bear a rigorous fasting practice. But for most of us, we can and should observe fasting during Lent that hurts, for without hurting there can be no advance in discipline of the body, which is necessary for spiritual growth. This is especially true when we live at a time when bodily pleasure of all sorts is seen as the sure road to self-fulfillment.
To make time in our day, which for many of us is terribly busy, for serious prayer and for spiritual reading is a manly act. I can use my busyness to excuse myself from this part of the Lenten rule. But this fools no one. The time is there. The will to use it spiritually requires manly determination, fed by grace.
The man who loses himself finds himself. Those words of Jesus are the foundation of what we call “alms- giving”, the giving of oneself to others, especially to those who are in need of help in their lives. Lent is a good time to practice this virtue, so that even after Lent has ended we find ourselves thinking about others much more than we think about ourselves and that thinking results in action, in acts of love. Remember that these acts of self-giving love need not be for “strangers”. There are those in our immediate families who need these acts of love. Step back and think how your alms giving can include those in your own family.
I close with the first verse of George Herbert’s wonderful poem called “Lent”.
Welcome dear feast of Lent: who loves not thee,
He loves not Temperance, or Authority,
But is compos’d of passion.
The Scriptures bid us fast; the Church says, now:
Give to thy Mother, what thou wouldst allow
To ev’ry Corporation.
Father Richard Gennaro Cipolla