When I arrived at a small chapel on the outskirts of Gujranwala, Pakistan, to celebrate Mass on the first Sunday of Lent I was surprised to see the place was practically empty. Eventually, I was told that the people were assembled in Rashid’s house (a parishioner) to support him in the rigorous fast he had begun on Ash Wednesday.
On investigation, I found Rashid solemnly seated on a raised platform before his house and surrounded by many admirers. He had decided not to eat or drink anything from sunrise to sunset for the 40 days of Lent and thus to prove that Christians could ‘out-fast’ Muslims, whose fast lasted only 28 days in the month of Ramadan!
I was sorely tempted to quote the words of Jesus: ‘When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father…’ (Matt: 6:17-18). I realised, however, that what Rashid was doing was but an extreme expression of a mentality many of us share. We have grown up with the idea that Lent is a time for increased effort on our part – doing more penance, saying more prayers, giving more alms.
We see Lent as a time to sort ourselves out and do some spiritual spring cleaning. There is some truth in this, but we often end up with the wrong perspective. We don’t save ourselves, no matter how hard we try; the compassionate God saves us, without totting up our good deeds.
During Lent the main focus has to go on what God is doing for us, rather than on what we are doing for God.
Listening once to a Muslim speak about the meaning of the Ramadan fast for him helped me to look on Lent and its practices in a new way. He said the physical hunger he feels in fasting turns his attention to the deep hunger and great need for God in his life. Penitential practices like fasting can get us in touch with our human fragility, vulnerability and brokenness which hunger for an experience of God’s salvation. To disciples of John the Baptist who wondered why Jesus was not emphasising fasting like their master, He replied that fasting is to be an expression of longing for his saving presence when he is taken from his own (Matt: 9:15).
Out of our vulnerability we express our longing for God in prayer. ‘As a deer yearns for running streams, so I yearn for you my God. I thirst for God, the living God…’ (Psalm 42:1-2).
In coming to the spiritual well, however, we meet the Lord who first thirsts for us. To the Samaritan woman who came to the well, Jesus introduces himself as a thirsty person (Jn 4:7). His physical thirst symbolises his deep desire to give her the water of authentic life. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church we read, ‘Whether we realise it or not, prayer is the encounter of God’s thirst with ours. God thirsts that we may thirst for him.’
God gifts us with the Spirit who ‘helps us in our weakness’ and ‘intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words’ (Rom 8:26). In being reminded that prayer is one of the traditional practices of Lent, I am conscious of my own feeble efforts in prayer. However, I find it helpful to recall that prayer is not something we do, but something God does in us. Our part is to tune into the ceaseless prayer of the Spirit in our hearts.
In our vulnerability we also offer ourselves to be channels of God’s loving outreach to those who are most deprived and broken in our world. In today’s harsh economic climate, people are understandably worried about keeping the job, paying the mortgage, protecting the pension, and securing the basic necessities of life.
However, the temptation is to adopt the mentality of ‘every man for himself’ and forget those who are most neglected in our world. To disciples worried about their day-to-day survival, Jesus spoke of giving alms and remitting debts as ways of making a heavenly investment which is rock solid (Lk 12:22-34). And the Lenten imperative of almsgiving calls us, not only to respond to urgent needs, but also to challenge the unjust systems which keep so many people in dehumanising poverty and do irreparable damage to God’s creation.
The liturgy refers to Lent as ‘this great season of grace,’ which is God’s gift to us. It is the time when we open ourselves to experience God’s salvation as pure gift. And God’s point of entry into our lives is our vulnerability and brokenness. As Leonard Cohen sings, ‘There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.’
Fr Tom O’Reilly was in Pakistan for 10 years and is now the Columban Regional Director for Britain.