To help readers experience something fresh this Lent, beyond the typical practice of “giving up” x or y, we asked four writers to focus on practices Christians might “take up” instead—an activity or discipline that would deepen the doer’s spiritual life while it also improved local conditions or the environment, relationships within families or parishes and even the political process during this presidential election year. We hope their suggestions help you rethink and celebrate this season. Reflections follow from John F. Kavanaugh, S.J., Gerald W. Schlabach, Margaret Pfeil and Thomas Massaro, S.J.
John F. Kavanaugh, S.J.
For many of us, the default mentality in approaching Lent still seems to be giving up something. It is a vestige of the long and often wise tradition of bodily mortification, or asceticism. Yet spiritual wisdom figures tell us that asceticism of the ego is more important than the control of our bodily inclinations. We might have great constraint over our physical appetites and still be radically self-centered or deluded.
That is why, especially in the context of the sacrament of reconciliation, I often surprise a penitent with a penance of five minutes of solitude a day or a half-hour walk with a friend or family member every week or a weekly visit with marginal persons who make us uncomfortable. The discomfort factor usually motivates our avoidance of solitude, relationships and the world of wounded persons. In each of these arenas we have to exercise a discipline far more challenging than giving up something. It is the asceticism of truth, truths we would rather not face, even though they might set us free.
I count myself among those who long for quiet but seem unable to make time for it. We have so much to do—with e-mail and the news, radio and television, tasks and projects. Even when we have quiet, our minds buzz with plans and possibilities or regrets and replays. What are we when we are not performing or producing or, much worse, pretending and comparing ourselves to others? The simple truth can be daunting at first because it has little to do with action or comparisons. What is unique about each of us is the faith, hope or love we offer in risk to each other and to God. Perhaps that is why Jesus himself is so impressed by those who offer them.
And everyone, to be sure, hungers for relationship. Yet, paradoxically, the depth of relationship is frightening. In true intimacy we will be found out, our vulnerability revealed. Better to spend our time with games and pets that have no ego to daunt us. But if we have the courage to allow ourselves to be known, we will discover what it is to be loved for who we are—no longer haunted by the suspicion that others love not us but a pretense.
Finally, we face our deepest selves when we are willing to encounter persons who cannot pretend. The marginal, the very old and dying, the imprisoned, the deeply distressed, the profoundly handicapped, by whom we initially might be repelled, reveal the truth about ourselves that Ash Wednesday proclaims: we are fragile as dust. This truth, too, is not as terrible as it might seem at first.
The paschal mystery is the culmination of Jesus’ full entry into the truth of our humanity, not only our dying and vulnerability but also our very sinfulness. If we have practiced the disciplines of truth, we will find not only our splendid gifts but our deepest wounds as well glorified.
John F. Kavanaugh, S.J., is a professor of philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis, Mo.
Gerald W. Schlabach
We Christians have struggled for centuries to understand how Jesus really expects us to love our enemies. (Bracket those vicious enemies who may actually be out to violently destroy us and ours.) To be ready for that kind of discipleship we must first learn to love our sisters and brothers in the Christian community itself. They are the ones close enough to stick in our craw.
So this Lent, listen to uncomfortable voices in your community. Listen without arguing back, for as long as it takes to really hear. Listen deliberately. Listen for the back story behind positions you may never agree with. Debate later.
Listening is the virtue this proposed Lenten discipline would inculcate if practiced throughout the year; it could become a lifelong habit. Especially in our era of culture wars, in which the blogosphere allows us to flame “enemies” we never meet face-to-face, nothing may affect us short of sitting down over coffee or on a park bench to listen face-to-face.
Listen particularly to someone who represents all you think might be wrong with the church. A Catholic neighbor, for example, who is so impassioned about some ways of defending life that he or she seems to ignore other ways. Or an openly gay Catholic who continues to receive the Eucharist or an activist campaigning to make same-sex marriage unconstitutional. Listen to the fan of that dangerous neoconservative columnist George Weigel, or the fan of that idealistic peacenik Jesuit John Dear; the parish liturgist who still includes those awful guitar-Mass ditties in the new Roman Mass or the patriarch in the next pew who glares when someone changes “his” to “God’s,” for “the good of all God’s holy Church.”
Alas, Catholic culture makes it easy to leave Sunday Mass, week after week, without talking at all, much less inviting real conversation elsewhere in the week. But resolve to try conversation at least once, for Lent. Whoever your conversation partner is, ask to hear his or her back story. Resolve that while you may ask for clarification, you may not argue. Trust might begin to develop, though probably not in a first meeting. If the other person reciprocates and asks for your back story, wonderful. Share your own story, but do not argue your position even then.
What if this encounter starts to soften your position? Yes, there is that risk. But this is Lent. Our Lord risked all, abandoning any self-defense other than the vindication of his Father. The cycle of the church year intends to teach us this: Resurrection is coming, but not without our dying to even the most righteous of causes, as we identify with the One who did so before us.
Gerald W. Schlabach is professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, Minn., and executive director of Bridgefolk, a movement for grass-roots dialogue between Mennonites and Roman Catholics.
At the end of a tree-lined dirt road surrounded by farmland, a boy with tousled blond hair smiles shyly behind a door that leads to a space that might serve as a garage for more conventional American families. At this home, though, the door opens onto a neatly arranged work area where an array of homemade bread awaits pickup. The boy’s mother, Melissa, bakes for the Monroe Park Grocery Cooperative in nearby South Bend, Ind. She is part of an extended community of young Amish families trying to navigate the vicissitudes of a globalized food system by farming the old-fashioned way—with draft horses, respect for the land and strong bonds of relationship rooted in faith.
Melissa’s baked goods are a hot item at the co-op, located in a mostly African-American neighborhood with a history of gang violence, a high school graduation rate of 47 percent and few prospects of employment in the middle of this rust-belt city. More than a mile removed from the nearest full-scale grocery store, Monroe Park qualifies as a food desert. It could also be considered a food swamp, since it hosts a couple of convenience stores flooded with snack food options high in calories but low in nutritional staying power.
Opened last spring in the local Catholic Worker community’s drop-in center, the grocery co-op emerged from conversations among neighbors about the scarcity of fresh, healthy, affordable food in an urban area surrounded by some of the richest farmland in the country; it is a double paradox, in that growers here struggle to find sufficient market venues for their goods.
Running a community grocery stocked with local foods and cultivating cooperative economic practices represent civic actions of nonviolent love.
Co-op members have high hopes, too: that area farmers will have more incentive to grow a variety of crops, knowing firsthand the needs of their customers; that inner-city residents will have access to affordable, fresh food and new opportunities for mindful consumption, in tune with the rhythms of creation. We hope that the bonds of social relations, sundered by the alienating effects of industrialization, will flourish again and that people of every age and background will have a chance to learn or retrieve time-tested skills for growing and preserving food.
In response to the direct challenges to food security posed by climate change, oil dependency and corporate agriculture, the act of setting up a local food system is a peace-building practice. Dorothy Day, co-founder with Peter Maurin of the Catholic Worker Movement, probably would have called it “the little way of love.” With her contemplative gaze, she noticed the interrelationship of the violence in our hearts, on our streets and among nation-states. Following St. Thérèse of Lisieux, she tried to meet the brokenness of the person right in front of her with the healing power of God’s love. To the extent that our local community can rely less on a globalized food system fueled by depleted energy supplies contested in international conflicts, our efforts to reconnect with one another and with the earth offer a little way of love.
Margaret Pfeil is an assistant professor in the theology department at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.
When sociologists set out to measure how civic voluntarism interacts with religious communities in the United States, they consistently find that Catholics are among the least likely believers to participate in projects of civic engagement. We Catholics write advocacy letters to members of Congress, for example, only one-third as often as Protestants do. Maybe our civic underachievement is an artifact of a top-down style of church polity. Or perhaps it is a function of parish cultures that render Catholics strangely passive in civic affairs, despite strong church social teachings that commend activism for social justice. Whatever the reason, Lent is an excellent time to shake off our slumber and commit ourselves to new civic involvements.
One of the perennial goals of sincere Lenten discipline is to re-convert one’s own soul, but it is all the better when our faith-saturated activities produce the added benefit of improving the quality of the lives of many others in need. Think of civic involvement for structural change as an alternative form of almsgiving, one that holds the promise of making lasting changes that will benefit the downtrodden. If it is good to provide a single meal for a hungry person, how much better it would be to advocate for more generous and reliable public food assistance programs for the long haul.
The most effective way to fight poverty and hunger is to let your voice be heard by those with the power to change public policies. For all its unpopularity these days, the U.S. Congress is still the only game in town. And, speaking of towns, there is no overriding reason to book a ticket to Washington, D.C., since each member of the House and Senate maintains a district office. I have always found these offices easy to locate and convenient to visit. It is not hard to book an appointment with a constituent-services assistant or liaison. If your timing is right, you may be able to share your talking points on impending legislation with the boss in person!
The best social justice advocacy is, of course, not limited to a one-time lobbying visit but spills over into such long-term commitments as network-building and maintaining relationships with legislators and many others in ongoing ways. Use the full power of your citizenship to forge lasting social change. Sticking your neck out in this way may feel intimidating and will surely cost you something in time and energy; but you need not feel alone in these efforts, and you certainly need not start from scratch. Groups already working on such issues include the hunger advocacy organization Bread for the World, whose president, the Rev. David Beckmann, was interviewed by America (see Signs of the Times,1/30, and the online podcast of 12/19/11). If you are looking for a template for your Lenten effort, check out the successful Circle of Protection campaign that Bread for the World and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops championed in 2011.
If you still prefer to think in terms of “giving up something for Lent,” then let it be apathy that you relinquish. Take advantage of this holy season to step up your commitment to the poor by advocating for measures that will benefit low-income people here and abroad.
Thomas Massaro, S.J., teaches social ethics at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, Chestnut Hill, Mass.