By Barb Arland-Fye
Earlier this Lent, Father Thom Hennen asked a question during his homily at Mass in the chancery chapel. How many of us had already blown a Lenten promise to give up something? True confession: he’d already failed!
Fr. Thom observed that giving up something as part of our Lenten practice of prayer, fasting and almsgiving requires us to be realistic. If we find ourselves failing over again, that means we’ve chosen an unrealistic sacrifice. If we don’t have to think about what we’ve given up for the six weeks of Lent, we’ve probably chosen something too easy!
His self-disclosure reassured me of two things: priests aren’t superhuman when it comes to fasting during Lent, and I have probably chosen the right thing for me to give up.
I fretted about giving up anything this Lent for fear of preoccupation with self-denial. So far, it’s been challenging enough. The temptation comes when I read about or talk with people (even in my office) who have taken an altogether different approach to the sacrificial aspect of Lent.
Reading, conversation and reflection have provided an epiphany of sorts. Self-denial is mine to own, not anyone else’s. Success or failure impacts no one else, unless I whine about it. Lent is both a communal and a private experience intended to guide us into deeper relationship with God and to focus on the needs of others. Taking pride in self-control means absolutely nothing if I lose sight of the overarching purpose of Lent. Or fail to see the gifts of Lent.
Last Sunday, I asked my husband, “Since Sunday is a celebration of Easter, do you consider it a free day from self-denial?” No, he doesn’t. But Steve admitted to being tempted to take advantage of his release from Lenten obligations because he’s over the age of 59.
He won’t skip fasting, though, because Lent isn’t about being legalistic. It’s about opening ourselves to Christ’s love and sharing that love with others, as Bishop Martin Amos said in his Lenten letter.
All three aspects of Lenten obligation have been challenging in certain ways for me, but I’ve come to realize that some decisions I make during Lent can enrich the journey in unexpected ways.
Last Friday I had the privilege of attending a Tony Melendez concert at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Iowa City. Tony is a talented musician who received a kiss on the head from Pope John Paul II in 1987 that sent the musician’s career into orbit. St. John Paul II was visibly moved to see Tony, born without arms, playing the guitar with his feet.
At his concert in Iowa City (he also performed in Ottumwa the following night), Tony’s message of gratitude for God’s blessings in his life shed light on my Lenten journey. This man, around my age, was born without arms because his mother took a medication called thalidomide for morning sickness. She did nothing wrong; he did nothing wrong, but the family worked to turn tragedy into life-giving transformation.
His story of faith, hope and joy — so evident in his performance — permeated my soul. I gave up something to attend the concert, precious time out of a demanding schedule. But the gift I received was sustenance during a particularly dry period in my Lenten journey. I hadn’t anticipated receiving a gift during Lent.
I’ll keep plugging away this Lent, striving to practice self-denial, prayer and almsgiving with greater conscientiousness and, hopefully, gratitude.