I look forward to Lent the way I used to look forward to football season. The anticipation energizes me. I enjoy the preparation. Most of all, I love it because the season demands something from me. Every season of the Church, properly observed, makes demands on us. These demands aren’t for the sake of themselves; by demanding more from us, the Church prepares us for a deeper experience of the Mystery of Faith. Ascetic comes from the Greek meaning exercise. Perhaps this is why I look forward to Lent they I way I used to welcome football – it is intense, and rewarding, spiritual exercise.
I am not unlike many a young (ish), male, Anglo-Catholic, embracing the traditional disciplines and practices of our faith the way other young (ish) men embrace the Marine Corps. We enter the journey expecting to be forged in the fire of prayer, devotions, liturgies, self-denial, etc. We also know that few will join us, making it even more appealing. We are the Few. The Proud. The Marines with Maniples. As such, we fight the temptation to make Lent more about what we are giving up than why we are giving it up. We can get competitive with one another and social media doesn’t help. All of it, rooted in pious intentions, quickly devolves into narcissism, completely betraying the Ash Wednesday Gospel of Matthew 6.
Last year I asked my Oblate Director (I’m a Benedictine Oblate with St John’s Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota) what I should do to make my Lent really austere. Tell me what you do, I asked. Give me the full monastic routine. I imagined hair shirts and a diet of cabbage water. My Director reminded me of what St Benedict wrote in the Rule: the life of a monk should always have a Lenten character. There are no heroic special rules during Lent. We should increase our diligence in these practices and add something sacrificial to them, but we should not distill 345 days of laxity into 40 days of super intense Christianity. That’s the spiritual equivalent of a crash diet. It might work for a short time, but we’ll be back where we were in no time, or maybe even further away from the heart of faith.
So for me, my Lenten discipline is slightly different from the rest of year. For food, I continue meat abstinence of Fridays and I restrict calories. I’ve been on a restrictive diet since January, so there’s no real change during Lent. I will certainly add Stations of the Cross to my Fridays and other devotions. I need to examine my calendar and make more time for silence, reading for the sake of reading (and not preparing for some parish duty), writing, and Eucharistic Adoration.
On Ash Wednesday, I was happy. Lent had arrived and I was ready for some discipline to tame my unruly will and my wayward thoughts and habits. I was ready for the promise of a deeper encounter with Jesus Christ. But Lent is a long season. I prayed that I would cooperate with the Holy Spirit.
There were seven liturgies and devotions on the first day of Lent. Seven times I day do I praise thee: Morning and Evening Prayer, Shrine Prayers, Rosary, and 3 masses – 8:30am, 12:00pm, and 6:00pm. I have such a good group of servers and faithful volunteers and I must brag (can I do that?) on my parish. They must know by now that the 6pm mass is going to be long. I can’t do a major celebration in under 90 minutes. And yet, they came. Ash Wednesday is always a curious day in terms of attendance. Other than Christmas and Easter, it is the single largest non-Sunday attendance day of the year. We were the same at 8:30am (21), down a fair amount at 12:00pm (83), and up at 6:00pm (157). 261 people on a Wednesday is 81% of our average Sunday attendance. I imagine that many parishes have a similar percentage.
Just before the noon mass, I walked to the narthex to check with the ushers. As I approached the narthex door, I could see through the glass a man that I had met two weeks earlier. I have coffee at Starbucks with our divinity school intern, Luke, every Monday morning after mass. Two Mondays ago, a man noticed my cassock and started a conversation. I have seen him at various coffee shops over the years. He’s clearly a character and makes the rounds, making his presence known wherever he goes. He asked which church I was attached to and told me he is formerly of the Italian mafia and hasn’t been to church in years. I told him Lent was coming and now was the time. He brushed it off and talked about his time in Vietnam and various other stories. At the end of the conversation he did, however, ask for a card. I found one and wrote the times of the Ash Wednesday masses and gave it to him, never expecting him to actually come. To my shock, he did. Thankfully, I remembered his name and he embraced me in the narthex. Later, I was told that he never did enter the church. He stayed in the narthex for about 20 minutes and left. I imagine that was the first time he had been in a church in decades and the narthex was as far he could go that time. Maybe the next time he will make it to a pew. Who knows? A few weeks after that he might make it to the confessional. And after that? The altar.
This is one of the reasons why I am not in favor of “Ashes-to-Go” (I’m not going to make the argument against it here; frankly, I’m not sure anyone is interested!). After mass, a simple lunch of tomato bisque and broccoli with some of the altar party. This would be my meal for the day. I would augment with a protein shake in the morning and one before bed. Instead of Ashes-to-Go, I did Ashes-on-the-Go and went to the hospital to visit a parishioner who specifically requested the imposition of ashes. We did a shortened version of the liturgy in the hospital room and I imposed ashes on his head. “Remember, O man, thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return,” has a different meaning for an octogenarian in the hospital. Another hospital visit and then back to the church for Evening Prayer, Shrine Prayers, Rosary, and the final mass.
After the final mass and I was asked to explain Ash Wednesday to our overflow homeless shelter guests. I did, and imposed ashes on two guests. It’s the closest I ever come to Ashes-to-Go, but I will argue the comparison is weak. I walked through the door at home just before 9pm, 14 hours after I had left. If I wanted a rigorous Lent, the first day didn’t disappoint.