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Lent -- not behaviors but series of questions


First Sunday of Lent

Lent is not an event. It is not something that happens to us. It is at most a microcosm of what turns out to be a lifelong journey to the center of the self.

The purpose of Lent is to confront us with ourselves in a way that’s conscious and purposeful, that enables us to deal with the rest of life well. It is not a “penitential season.” It is a growing season. It requires us to determine what is worth dying for in our own lives and what it may be necessary for us to become if we really want to live.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, then, Lent is not a series of behaviors. It is a series of questions that, year after year, is designed to measure our progress on the way to fullness of life.

The question we are confronted with the First Sunday of Lent this year is a critical one: Do you want to be religious or do you want to be real? Think very carefully before you answer.

Sorrow for sins is a universal religious concern. In January 70 million Indians traveled to Allahabad, India, to bathe away their sins at the place in the Ganges River where, according to Hindu tradition, the gods spilled a drop of the nectar of creation. Every year Muslims by the millions pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia or keep Ramadan, the great Muslim penitential period. Every Jew hopes to go to the Western Wall in Jerusalem at least once in a lifetime and in the meantime keeps Yom Kippur in their local synagogues. Twenty-five million Christians traveled to Rome last year to celebrate the Jubilee Year of forgiveness and even more around the world will celebrate Lent which begins Feb. 28 and brings us 40 days for special prayers and fasting. All of us, from all of these traditions, go to these places, practice these rituals, make these sacrifices to renew our separate faiths, to recommit our lives, to be forgiven our sins.

A religious world

We live, in other words, in a religious world, starting with our own. In the United States of America, religion is part and parcel of every presidential inauguration. Chaplains open every session of Congress. Sunday morning television programming on U.S. channels is thick with showings of back-to-back denominational services. Great institutional charities attach to each of the various religious bodies. There are churches in every neighborhood. We inscribe our coins with the reminder “In God we trust.” And for Christians, Lenten practices spill over into daily life: Restaurants serve Lenten menus. Children put money in mite boxes. People do public stations everywhere.

So how do we explain the gap between the way we practice our faith and the way our world looks? It’s not a new question. In the gospel for [Ash Wednesday] [erroneously mentioned as the First Sunday of Lent] (Matthew: 6, 1-6, 16-18) Jesus deals with it head on. Of the three pillars of religion in ancient Judaism -- prayer, fasting and almsgiving -- the voice of Jesus down the ages warns us about being seduced into believing that any of them, by virtue of their own worthiness, is really religious.

About those who got their satisfaction out of standing up in the synagogues or praying on the streets, he warned his disciples “When you pray, go into your room alone and pray in secret.”

To those who gave great alms and in return got great publicity for it, he said, “When you give alms do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”

In regard to those whose fasting was done with public fanfare and feigned distress, he said to his own followers, “When you fast, dress up, look your best.” Smile, in other words.

Stopping us cold

The gospel stops us cold. We blink. Whatever happens to the whole idea of public witness here?

The answers to Jesus’ condemnation of religion for show are stark ones in a culture where religion is a very public, a very ritualized thing. Religion, real religion, was clearly not, ironically -- at least to the mind of Jesus -- for public display, not for public “witness,” not for public gesture. We’re left with a problem: Why do it if not as an example to others? And the answer must be that maybe, just maybe, it’s not religion as we know it that is supposed to be the example. The real example of religious commitment, it seems, does not come from the rituals we keep. The example lies in what we become because of what we practice. And despite the fact that we are a church-going people, it is more than possible that we have clearly not become real yet.

Wasting Lent on churches

In a culture such as this one, in fact, it’s almost a shame to waste Lent on churches. It could surely and -- with clear justification -- more authentically become a government activity or a national event than a private observance. Heaven knows there is enough to repent in this culture to make Lent as much a corporate activity as it is a religious one: Children lack health insurance in the wealthiest period in U.S. economic history. According to Amnesty International, 85 percent of all known executions in 1999 took place in China, Iran, Saudia Arabia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the United States. Corporations hire and fire workers depending on predetermined profit margins. Abortion is for many the birth control method of choice in a society where adoption has never been more popular and less possible. Children kill children because gun control laws are resisted on the grounds that to restrict the ownership and use of guns violates a person’s constitutional rights. Surely something of real religion is missing in a religious country no matter how many of us do our private penances. Lent, it seems, loses a little when it’s confined to institutional practices and ecclesiastical symbolism.

But there is more to this Sunday’s gospel than simply a call to avoid ostentation. As important as it may be to eliminate the pretentious in religious circles that do great gold-encrusted liturgies, and wine and dine benefactors, and monitor their charities to determine whether or not the needy are sufficiently poor enough to grovel for it, there is more. This gospel is, beyond these more obvious reminders that public religion may be no religion at all, surely a call to each of us to become what we do: to become the heart that is so generous, whose largesse is so reckless that there is no damping the flow in the face of need. To become the remorse that is so deep and the self-knowledge that is so keen that we can’t possibly abide destructive criticism of the other -- any other. To become the human beat of the heart of God, to radiate an intimacy so intense that nothing dulls the sense of the presence of God in creation.

Clearly, the gap between our private penances and our public world has something to do with what we think Lent is all about. It’s about the questions we ask ourselves -- not simply the things we do.

Today’s gospel is a call to go beyond the practice of religion to the pursuit of the real in me, to wrestle it to the ground, to become at long last what all my public postures say I am.

When we have put down the glut of our own lives, we will stand in the rain without knowing we’re wet and cry for the unprotected children of America. When we ourselves have become sin, we will speak weepingly for those we murder in the name of our righteousness. When we have become the prayer we pray, we will see the face of God in everyone we meet.

Then the question with which the First Sunday of Lent faces us -- do you want to be religious or do you want to be real -- will become for us the standard for a truly religious life and a sign of the depth of our own spirituality as well. Then, we will, for the first time perhaps, really understand what fueled the self-giving of a Dorothy Day, the prayer life of a Philippine Duchesne and the single-minded witness of a Mahatma Gandhi, all of whose lives called entire peoples to the kind of new consciousness that we ourselves in this very religious society need right now.

Clearly, this is a gospel that calls for complete transformation of the way we do religion, the way we function as a society, the way we measure spirituality itself.

So how do we explain the gap between the way we practice our faith and the way the world looks? G.K. Chesterton says it this way: “Facts as facts do not always create a spirit of reality, because reality is a spirit.” All the almsgiving, all the fasting, all the praying in the world will not be real, will not mean a thing, unless it first changes our own hearts into the very spirit of almsgiving and fasting and praying about which we speak. Being real may, in the end, have far greater effect and be far more difficult than simply being religious.

But that will, of course, depend on the way we answer the rest of this Lent’s questions.

Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, author and lecturer, lives in Erie, Pa.

National Catholic Reporter, February 23, 2001