Thursday after Ash Wednesday
Dt 30:15-20 / Lk 9:22-25
I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. [Dt 30:19]
Lent is always a difficult time for me because of its emphasis on penance, guilt and similar topics. It’s very easy to cross over into a toxic level of self-criticism which becomes shame. My recent poor experience during Confession isn’t helping, as my mind is the kind that replays that sort of thing over and over; right now I’m doing a pretty decent job of working my way up to full-blown anxiety over the possibility of going again.
As a result, I’ve been keeping a short list of things I can do to keep my focus set properly. For example, I decided I was just going to do my traditional “chocolate and carbonated drinks” penance for Lent instead of trying anything additional; it’s admittedly token, but keeping it simple will keep me from descending into self-flagellation. This list of ideas is also one that I’m printing out and keeping close by, as a reminder of what Lent is actually about.
Today’s echo also reminds me to stay mindful of the fact that the real purpose of Lent is reflection and renewal. It’s not fast and abstinence; those are disciplines, not doctrines, and are designed to help a person refocus themselves so that they’re paying more attention to their interior faith life than to the “noise” of the outside world. There is a link between the 40 days of Lent and the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert, and it’s the desert symbology that leads to the ideas of fasting, abstinence and self-denial.
Someone posted to Facebook yesterday that Catholics shouldn’t complain about their fasting rules for Ash Wednesday, because the Jewish rule for Yom Kippur is so much stricter: 25 hours with no food or water. My comment was a shot right back: I’m not interested in damaging the body that God gave me. After all, Genesis clearly shows that the bodies that God gave us are good, not evil, and are worthy of care.
Shame and self-punishment are curses, not blessings, and it’s important to remember that they are not properly penitential unless they actually lead one closer to God. Today I’m going to focus on remembering that while it’s important to keep some discipline during Lent, it’s even more important to make sure that everything I do is bringing me closer to being alive in God. That is the point of Lent: not death, but life.