Monday, February 15, 2010

A more meaningful Lent

I USED to know a priest who weighed more than two hundred pounds. We were seated at table when the conversation turned to the question, “What are you giving up for Lent?” It was his turn to give his answer and he looked at us gravely as though the issue was a matter of life and death. Then he said: “Physical exercise.” I always have this suspicion that Lent is, for most of us Catholics, a break from our excesses during Christmas, New Year, Sto. Niño and other festivities that go before or come after it, principally motivated (or shall I say ‘dampened’) by the cultivated consciousness of the Lord’s suffering and death on the cross we would be meditating on and which, being more or less inspired by tons of guilt-feelings over our immoderations, leads us to embracing “acts of penance”, namely, the Stations of the Cross, fasting and abstinence, somber prayerfulness, charity (if that’s not too distracting of us going through the preceding motions). Of course, there’s basically nothing abnormal about that. It should pain us though that despite all the catechesis we have received and continue to give on the essential link of Lent to the renewal of our baptismal promises, we still think of Lent as a time of ‘giving up’ instead of a ‘taking up’.

It’s not that I disagree with the ‘giving up’ part. It’s just that I think we often forget the ‘taking up’ component that completes it.

We give up some food or drink (by fasting and abstinence) in order to take up our responsibility to the hungry and the disadvantaged among us. There’s a great ascetical value to our saying no to our appetites but that value becomes eternal when it becomes an avenue to love and charity. In this sense fasting and abstinence is not confined to food and beverage but, in fact, can include anything we can convert into something that expresses love for God and neighbor. When I refrain from cursing during traffic jams or from hurling invectives at politicians I intensely disagree with or from abusing my authority as a priest by imposing especially on the poor high fees for my ‘services’ (a word that, in effect, becomes a ‘misnomer’), I am also doing fasting and abstinence as much as when I refrain from food or meat. The point is that when I deny something I really would like for myself, it’s clearly an admirable act. But when I do that so I would be able to give something good as an expression of charity to another person who needs it probably more than I (such as food, clothing, respect for one’s dignity, support etc.), a merely admirable act becomes a Christian act. In the Philippines (particularly in the rural poor where this author ministers) meat is mostly food identified with the rich or middle class, the poor being only able to indulge it in certain times and circumstances, such as during fiestas or major celebrations. I remember a priest explaining how fasting can mean eating only once in a day to a barangay community when a gaunt-looking man remarked, “In that case I’ve been fasting all my life, Padre…” If our fasting does not help raise our hungry and disadvantaged to the level their dignity deserves, then our fasting could become an empty show. In a word, we give up food and drink in order ultimately to take up our responsibility to struggle for real justice as a way to real peace in our archipelago.

There are other things I suggest we give up during Lent as much as afterwards.

We must give up merely relying on human sources of strength in order to connect to our real Source. This is the whole point to the time we must spend in prayer and silence during and beyond Lent. Jesus, the gospels tell us, spent whole “nights” in prayer, being connected with the Father. At most, we spend fifteen to thirty minutes of the same. And we complain whenever there are efforts to prolong the time of prayer and silence in the church or in our gatherings. Isn’t it vulgar that we can spend hours and hours in meetings, deliberations and conversations among ourselves, in discussing programs and policies, in dissecting the news and politicians’ idiosyncrasies, in watching television and a limitless variety of film, and yet have very little time with the One who Matters Most who also makes things really matter—namely, the God of our salvation? If the problems of the country and the Church in the country are so grave—and there’s no disputing that, whatever sides we take in the political or social arena—then why are we not spending as much time getting in touch with the one who has the greatest power to help us?

We must give up cynicism and indifference in order to take up our responsibility to raise our country from the pit of hopelessness. The cynicism and indifference in the masses of Filipinos could be palpable in the general lack of approval we give to our leaders and our lack on faith in our democratic institutions, however deserved. But it doesn’t take genius to realize how after giving in to cynicism and indifference we are still where we are as a nation. Real penance means that we cast away these two incentives to inaction and non-involvement.

We must give up listening mainly to politicians, economists and technocrats in order to take up our responsibility to listen to the real voices of the poor. If you listen to the politicians (the incumbent ones especially) in my province you would think we are on the brink of prosperity. The truth is, we are somewhat in between being on the brink of pity or popular rage because of the crass and unacceptable gap between what we hear (political propaganda) and what we see (perpetually bad roads, unemployment, unproductive lands, unexplained loss of public revenues, unexplained wealth of people in power etc.). The effort to listen to the real voices of the poor has been a struggle even for us in the Church. But we must begin and, where we have begun, we must not close our ears even when the truth is not pleasant to hear. The reason is simple. Only with our poor, in their massive number, can we expect to truly to co-discern where the Spirit is really leading us in our feeble efforts to finally arrive at a place called “Freedom of the Children of God”.

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