Lent is primarily known as a time devoted to fast and abstinence. Our non-Catholic friends feel sorry for us because we have to watch our food. “Isn’t it an awful strain?”
But this is only one side of the season of Lent, and not even the most important one. First and foremost, these weeks between Ash Wednesday and Holy Saturday are set aside as a time of preparation for the greatest feast of the year, Easter.
We are not fasting in commemoration of Our Lord’s fast of forty days, but are imitating Him in his fast of preparation–preparation for His great work of Redemption. It is the same with us. Once a year we take forty days out of the three hundred and sixty-five, and we too fast in preparation: in preparation for the commemoration of our Redemption.
We all should get together and work toward the restoration of the meaning of Lent. People nowadays see in it just a gloomy time full of “must nots.” That is a great pity, because Lent is a solemn season rich in hidden mysteries. We must also keep in mind that Lent is only a part of the great Easter season, that it is for Easter what Advent was for
Christmas, and that Lent taken by itself would make no more sense than Advent without Christmas at its end. Therefore, we should let Holy Mother Church take us by the hand and lead us–not each soul alone, but the whole family as a group–away from the noise of the world into a forty-day retreat.
No other time of the year has been so singled out by the Church as this, in that a completely different Mass is provided for every single day, beginning with Ash Wednesday and continuing through the octave day of Easter; and again for the crowning feast of the Easter season, the eight days of Pentecost. If we keep the closed time as faithfully as our forefathers did–which means keeping away from all noisy outside entertainment such as cocktail parties and dances–then we shall find ample time for the imitation of Christ as it is outlined in every morning’s Mass.
The restoration of the season of Lent was begun in the year when the Holy Father gave back to us the Easter Night. As we now know that in this holiest of all nights we shall be permitted to be reborn in Christ, renewing solemnly, with a lighted candle in our hands, our baptismal vows, we understand more and more clearly the two great thoughts which the Church is developing throughout the whole of Lent: the instruction of the catechumens and the deepening of the contrition of the penitents.
Instruction and penance shall become our motto also for these holy weeks.
Instruction–this brings us to the Lenten reading program. The time saved through abstention from movies–and it is astonishing to find how much it is!–will be devoted to a carefully chosen reading program. Every year we should divide our reading into three parts: something for the mind, something for the heart, something for the soul.
Something for the mind: This should mean doing serious research. One year we might work on the history of the Church; another year on the sacraments; or we might carefully study a scholarly life of Our Lord
Jesus Christ; or a book on Christian ethics; or the Encyclicals of the Pope; or a book on dogma.
For the soul: This should be spiritual reading of a high order, from the works of the saints or saintly writers. For example, “The Ascent of Mt. Carmel,” by St. John of the Cross; “The Introduction to a Devout Life,” by St. Francis de Sales; “The Story of a Soul,” by St. Therese of Lisieux; “The Spiritual Castle,” by St. Teresa of Avila; “The Soul of the Apostolate,” by Abbot Chautard; the books of Abbot Marmion, and similar works.
For the heart: According to the old proverb, “Exempla trahunt,” it is most encouraging to read the biographies of people who started out as we did but had their minds set on following the word of Our Lord, “Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect.”
In other words, to read a well-written biography of a saint (canonized or not) will have the same effect on us as it had once on St. Augustine, who said, after watching saintly people living a holy life: “If he could do it, and she, why not I?”
But it has to be a well-written biography, that is, a book showing a human being in the round, with all his shortcomings that had to be overcome by faithful cooperation with grace–and not the old-fashioned hagiography in sugar-candy style with its doubtful statements, carefully stressing that the saint is born a full-fledged saint by describing how the holy baby refused his mother’s breast every Saturday in honor of the Blessed Mother (and, of course, the first words of these remarkable beings invariably must be a piously lisped “Jesus and Mary”).
These “saints” never made a mistake, never succumbed to temptation–in other words, their literary portraits are identical replicas of their statues in the show windows in Barclay Street and just as inspiring.
But we are lucky the worst seems to be behind us. A new school of writing of the lives of the saints has begun.
If every member of a family adopts this threefold reading program and comments on the books he has been working on, a great benefit will be flowing from one to the other as they exchange the spiritual goods obtained from their reading.
I remember how the enthusiasm of each reader made us exchange books after Lent was over. Years ago it began with the books of Henry Gheon first, “The Secret of the Little Flower,” followed by the other secrets of the saints.
Another year it was “The History of a Family,” with its background story of the most irresistible saint of our days, Therese of Lisieux. Recently we all found “St. Teresa of Avila,” by Marcelle Auclair, the best and most readable of all biographies of this great saint. After we had seen the great film, “Monsieur Vincent,” we were naturally interested in reading Monsignor Jean Calvet’s version of the saint’s life, “St. Vincent de Paul.”
There is no saying how much such an extensive reading program adds to the richness of family life, how many new topics are introduced, to be talked about during the family meals.
And one book that should certainly be read aloud during these days of the great retreat is the Holy Bible. It would be a good idea to lean, for one year at least, close to the selections the Church herself makes in the breviary of the priests. In another year one could take one of the prophets (Isaias during Advent, Jeremias during Lent), and go on from there until every book of Holy Scriptures has been read aloud and discussed in the family.
In this way we have read through the books of the Old and New Testaments more than once, and have found them an unending source of happiness and spiritual growth. Any family that has tried it will never want to give it up.
To set aside the “closed times” of the year for daily reading aloud is one of the most profitable uses of the time gained. As many questions will be asked, it will be necessary to obtain some source in which to find at least some of the answers. A commentary on the Holy Scriptures should be in every Christian house.
If the first thought recurring through the liturgy of Lent is instruction, the second is penance. To understand better what was originally meant by that word, let us go back to the beginning when the
Church was young and the zeal and fervor unbroken. Father Weiser, in his “Easter Book,” tells us about it:
“Persons who had committed serious public sin and scandal were enjoined on Ash Wednesday with the practice of ‘public penance.’ The period of the penance lasted until Holy Thursday when they were solemnly reconciled, absolved from their sins, and allowed to receive Holy Communion….
The imposition of public penance on Ash Wednesday was an official rite in Rome as early as the fourth century; and soon spread to all Christianized nations. Numerous descriptions of this ancient ceremony have been preserved in medieval manuscripts and, in every detail, breathe a spirit of harshness and humility really frightening to us of the present generation.
“Public sinners approached their priests shortly before Lent to accuse themselves of their misdeeds and were presented by the priests on Ash Wednesday to the bishop of the place. Outside the cathedral, poor and noble alike stood barefoot, dressed in sackcloth, heads bowed in humble contrition.
The bishop, assisted by his canons, assigned to each one particular acts of penance according to the nature and gravity of his crime. Whereupon they entered the church, the bishop leading one of them by the hand, the others following in single file, holding each other’s hands.
Before the altar, not only the penitents, but also the bishop and all his clergy recited the seven penitential psalms. [Psalms 6, 31, 37, 50, 101, 129, 142.] Then, as each sinner approached, the bishop imposed his hands on him, sprinkled him with holy water, threw the blessed ashes on his head, and invested him with the hair shirt.
Finally he admonished (“with tears and sighs” as the regulation suggests): “Behold you are cast out from the sight of Holy Mother Church because of your sins and crimes, as Adam the first man was cast out of Paradise because of his transgression.”
After this ceremony the penitents were led out of the church and forbidden to re-enter until Holy Thursday (for the solemn rite of their reconciliation).
Meanwhile they would spend Lent apart from their families in a monastery or some other place of voluntary confinement, where they occupied themselves with prayer, manual labor, and works of charity. Among other things they had to go barefoot all through Lent, were forbidden to converse with others, were made to sleep on the ground or on a bedding of straw, and were unable to bathe or cut their hair.
“Such was the public penance (in addition to the general Lenten fast) for ‘ordinary’ cases of great sin and scandal….For especially shocking and heinous crimes a much longer term was imposed.
An ancient manuscript records the case of an English nobleman of the eleventh century who received a penance of seven years for notorious crimes and scandals committed.
The duties of his first year of public penance consisted of the following details: he must not bear arms (a bitter humiliation for a nobleman of that time!); he must not receive Holy Communion except in danger of death; he must not enter the church to attend Mass but remain standing outside the church door; he must eat very sparingly, taking meat only on Sundays and major feasts; on three days of the week he must abstain from wine; he must feed one poor person every day from what he would have spent on himself.
The document closes with the words: ‘If, however, thou shalt have borne this penance willingly for one year, in the future, with God’s grace, thou shalt be judged more leniently.'” (Francis X. Weiser, “The Easter Book,” pp. 46f. New York, Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1954)
And Father Weiser adds a helpful remark. “These examples will make clear, perhaps, what an indulgence granted by the Church means in our time. An indulgence of seven years is the remission of temporal punishment for sins already forgiven to the extent of a seven years’ personal penance such as just described.”
After having seen what penance meant to our fathers in the faith, it will be interesting to see how much of it is still alive in our times.
“Lord, You know my weakness; every morning I make a resolution to practice humility, and every evening I acknowledge that I still have many failures. I am tempted to be discouraged by this, but I know that discouragement also has its source in pride. That is why I prefer to put my trust in You alone, O my God. Since You are all-powerful, deign to create in my soul the virtue for which I long”. – St. Therese of the Child Jesus
Ash Wednesday homily…
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