By Fr. Joe DeFrancisco
The word Lent derives from the Latin word “lentus,” meaning, slow. Anyone reading music often comes to a stanza that reads “lenta” or “lentamente,” which means, play it slow or very slow. These words perfectly describe not only the season of Lent, but the whole dynamic and process of the work of transformation and sanctification of the world, the Church, and our individual lives in and through the presence of the Holy Spirit.
The season of Lent was somewhat of an invention by the early Christian Church as a spiritual “boot-camp” for the adult catechumens (convert/learners), now in close proximity to their own life-altering commitment in baptism. The years of grooming, instructing and forming new converts into a profound relationship with Jesus Christ and his community of Church required discipline and patience. Dramatic and speedy conversions were not the norm. A favorite metaphor that may describe Christians comes from C.S. Lewis’ writings. He defines Christian conversion and spiritual growth as a turtle, “slow-paced we go!” Another motto within the 12-step spiritual transformation journey says: “Let go and let God.”
This is not at all easy to live out. Nevertheless, during Lent the early Jewish and Gentile converts were especially challenged during this season to slowly, but with determination, let go of earthly power and possession so that the Holy Spirit could become the core spiritual power and impetus in their lives. The early Church emphasized the seriousness of engaging a lifestyle of conversion and change by requiring the catechumens to gather daily for prayer, fast only on bread and water for 40 days, and to commit themselves to a more active apostolic life, through outreach to the widows, poor, homeless, abandoned children, etc.
The journey toward holiness and saintliness could never be accomplished in one Lent. It would take a lifetime of Lents, each time, like the turtle of C.S. Lewis, sticking out our necks and risking to let go of more sins, bad choices, excesses, compulsions, and addictions. In an early work of C.S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity,” he devotes an entire chapter on the true meaning of “penitence.” It is not the posture of naming sins or feeling shame and remorse for making bad choices or neglecting our spiritual/sacramental life. Lewis parallels the teaching of biblical scholars who reveal the true nature of conversion or what St. Paul calls “metanoia.”
In the ancient Arabic or Hebrew sense this meant a deep and profound sorrow for how my sin or bad choices affect my love for God and my relationship with others. This is not shame-based religion. It is a willingness to allow the Holy Spirit to shed painful light on how our sin and choices affect others and our being-with-God. This profound feeling of sorrow alone leads to real and lasting change. God is not in the business of fixing in us what we don’t like. God has sent the Spirit to grace us with the possibility of growing to become the saintly persons we are meant to be. This is spiritual transformation grounded in the process and dynamic of conversion.
After decades of trial and error, hoping to make Lent more and more meaningful, I have imposed a few goals on myself. First, what positive spiritual exercises can I invest more of my heartfelt self in that I know draw me closer to my God, such as celebrating Eucharist with more life, joy, love and conviction? How can I make my short times of personal prayer more intimate, honest, heartfelt? Second, do I really need my weekly fix of Thursday-night comedy reruns to get through the work week? Could I replace those rather silly programs with a quiet evening of spiritual reading or Scripture meditation? Third, how and where am I sinning against my own body? Do I need to rest more or better? How many more times must my doctor warn me of high cholesterol before I stop eating cheese and chocolate?
I have discovered that the “new” fasting is not about bread and water; it is about learning to live a healthier life for myself and others by allowing the gift of Lent to jump-start a better way of life. Finally, as was the tradition of the early Church, the greatest threat to one’s relationship with God and spiritual community was the lack of love. The early Christian community realized that real love had to be translated from prayer to practice. Lent challenges us to get out of our favorite meditation chair or yoga position and move into the community of our churches and community of our broken world by doing something, anything that would make life a little better for others.
In all of this I have come to realize that even as a priest of Christ I will be a lifelong catechumen, in need of conversion, repentance, grace and a support group of other broken, imperfect members like myself. In preparation for every Easter, for the rest of my life, I will always need to be “born-again.”
(Fr. DeFrancisco is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)