Subtitle: A “How-To” Manual, based on Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21, for the Lenten season.
Lent. The chief penitential season of the church year. The 40-day period of self-examination before Easter Day.
Why penitence; that is, sorrow for the hurts we cause others and ourselves? Why self-examination? Because our connectedness to ourselves, others, and God cannot be known unless we know ourselves. And knowing ourselves, in part, involves acknowledging our brokenness; that chasm between our idealized and actual selves.
During Lent, we are summoned to practice spiritual disciplines as tools of self-examination. Jesus mentions three (originally of Judaism and, in the latter part of the 1st century, adopted by the Christian Church): almsgiving or monetary charity, prayer, and fasting.
Now, if we’re not inclined toward spiritual disciplines, we may be okay. For, according to Jesus, there’s a problem that arises not when we don’t do them (that’s an issue about which Jesus has no comment), but rather when we do. Jesus doesn’t say if, but when we give alms, pray, and fast. Jesus isn’t urging or nagging us to practice spiritual disciplines. Assuming that we do, he warns us of an inherent temptation, to paraphrase T. S. Eliot’s Thomas Beckett, to do the right thing for the wrong reason:
Charity to prove the depth of our generosity…
Prayer to prove the breadth of our spirituality…
Fasting to prove the height of our self-control…
According to Jesus, if, when we do this, we are hypocrites (from the Greek hupocritēs, meaning, originally, actor, one who performs on stage wearing a mask; thus, one whose true face cannot be seen).
Here, I confess that at my most charitable, I am not wholly generous. For there always is something for me in the charitable act; even if it’s only benign self-satisfaction. Hence, when in my charity, I seek to prove the purity, the single-mindedness of my generosity (which, by my human nature, doesn’t, can’t exist), I am not showing my true face.
Here, a greater danger appears. The spiritual disciplines, as tools of illusion and self-delusion, are obstacles in our pathway to self-examination over which we can stumble and break our spiritual necks. Perhaps it is best, surely safer if we didn’t attempt to practice spiritual disciplines at all! But then we’d miss the reward.
The Greek word translated reward is an ancient marketplace term meaning that one receives exactly that for which one pays; nothing more, nothing less. So, when we practice spiritual disciplines to gain the praise, to hear the applause of others, then we have received our reward; nothing more, nothing less.
However, spiritual disciplines, as tools of self-examination, offer another reward; that of more greatly knowing ourselves. And, in knowing ourselves – our humanness, which is both unique to our individual selves and shared with all others – we more greatly know others. And, in knowing others, we more greatly know God, know the mind and heart of the One who created us to be in relationship.
And being in relationship is the point. The point of spiritual disciplines. The point of Jesus’ teaching. The point of Lent and self-examination.
Lent reminds us that we are related. All of us are dependent. None of us stands alone. All of us are needy, all of the time. None of us can satisfy fully our own needs. This state of related dependence is our truest self. If…when we act as if we are otherwise, then we are hypocrites, actors.
Let us give alms. Acting on our awareness of other’s needs, the world’s need and as an outward expression and constant reminder of our need, which nothing that we can give to ourselves can satisfy.
Let us pray. Not to tell an omniscient God what God already knows. Not to find just the right words to touch the heart of a God whose benevolence, given the state of the world and our lives, we might question. Not to counteract the prayers of all those who think differently than we do and who, therefore, are praying for opposite results. Rather, let us pray always as an act of confession; speaking with our lips the truth of our hearts. Let us pray as an expression of our truest selves, daring to be honest, saying and sharing everything – our hopes and fears, our needs and wants, our loves and hatreds – trusting that those who hear us, God and our sisters and brothers with whom we are in relationship, can and will accept us.
Let us fast. Freeing ourselves of any sense that we are self-sufficient and can satisfy ourselves, so to discover anew our deepest hunger – to be at-one with ourselves, others, and God.
Let us, suchwise, observe a holy Lent.
© 2021 PRA
Endnote: From T. S. Eliot’s, Murder in the Cathedral. The actual quote is: “The last temptation is the greatest treason. To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”