Lent, How Do You Do?

Subtitle: A “How-To” Manual, based on Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21, for the Lenten season.

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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.

So…

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.”

4 thoughts on “Lent, How Do You Do?

  1. Dear Paul,

    After spending time with “Ash Wednesday” today, I was happy to see Eliot appear in this meditation. I have always remembered that striking quote from reading Murder in the Cathedral in high school. (In case you’re wondering, my brilliant and beloved high school English teacher – from Spartanburg, alas long departed – was a great Eliot fan, so I read a lot of Eliot early in my life.)

    Thank you for this thoughtful introduction to Lent 2021. I’ve come to this day ready to examine the ground I’ve traversed in the past year and whether and how much there’s anything left of the person I was in February 2020 and of the world we all inhabited, comparatively comfortable and innocent then, even after the first three years of surreal political chaos. Once I figure that out, learning about this remarkably altered consciousness I’ve lived into will need time and inspiration. Thinking of alms-giving, prayer, and fasting in the terms in which you have clearly and beautifully laid out in this meditation is helpful and grounding in that endeavor.

    Thank you, Paul, for making a trail into this shadow season and inviting others of us to join you. Somehow the untamed, unpredictable extremes of nature much of the nation and other parts of the world are experiencing seem fitting to the start of this deeply necessary trek. Perhaps the earth itself is speaking to us about the necessity for self-examination in this season. (It seems to recall Jesus’ remark to the Pharisees in Jerusalem that the stones themselves would cry out if the throngs were silent. Some things just need to be and will be spoken and heard, however it has to happen.)

    So, as you often say to Loretta, “carry on,” dear Paul. We must be on the way into whatever territory this Lenten season has to show us.

    With gratitude and love,

    Karen

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  2. My dearest Karen, your ardent wonderment and willing exploration of your pilgrimage of time (2020 to now) and of place (where you were then and where you are now) and, most especially, of person (who you were then and who you are now) is an inspiration to me. For this of which you write and propose for yourself is, I believe, the fundamental work of Lent, which, also for me, is another way of saying the principal labor of life. In this, Lent, as an annual time specific (as is true, I think, of all timely demarcations that we humans observe), is a reminder that each and every day is to be one of self-examination, penitence and repentance, and renewal. I pray this will be so for me. For I have a tendency, when reflecting on my life and times, to delve into the darkest aspects of my history, places where light barely, rarely finds a home. In doing so, I can be and remain stuck in those memories. I pray for light…

    I pray for you in your labor of self-love (or, as I’m newly wont to say, self-ish [in the best sense of the term, meaning related to self-awareness, self-being-and-becoming] labor)!

    Love,
    Paul

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  3. Good Morning Karen and Paul, I am soooo upset. i wrote this LONG response to you both and it’s gone somewhere. I am so sad. I am at a memorial service at the moment but will try to replicate it later today in between presentations and interviews.

    Much love to you both!

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    1. Oh, I hope you can reconstruct your comment, Loretta! It’s so frustrating when that happens.

      Love,

      Karen

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