(This post was supposed to go up on Thursday morning, but life interfered and here it is on Thursday night, and into Friday!)
A reflection from Bill Thornton. Bill is a frequent contributor to the blog, along with others from the Hosanna Praer group.
It was different in the old days.
I remember Lent of 1951. I was 12 and in the 7th grade. Poor Sister Marie Louise was already showing signs of losing contact with reality. (She was institutionalized at the end of the school year, but they did not have anybody else to teach 7th grade.) Sister decided that, besides giving up candy for Lent (as she thought we would), the whole class was going to attend daily Mass. Just so we are clear, this meant that we had to leave home unfed and without water, walk a half mile (I checked on Google maps. I would have guessed much farther.), attend Mass, receive Communion, return the same half mile home, eat breakfast, brush our teeth, and walk back to school by 8:30.
To demonstrate our devotion to the task, all of us (7th graders remember) had to wear “crowns” made of purple construction paper with seven purple crosses sticking up from the headband. For each day that we attended Mass (and checked in with Sister), we would get a paper rose that we paper-clipped to one of the crosses. Imagine our embarrassment when we walked around school wearing those paper crowns with or without roses.
The second thing that Sister decided that we should do for Lent was memorize each week the Sunday Gospel – in French since we were in a French-speaking Canadian parish. We did a lot of memorizing in those days, and this would have been only a minor annoyance, except that I was assigned an additional chore in this regard, namely to “help” Arthur to memorize the Gospel. Arthur had come over to parochial school from public school in 7th grade because the public school teachers gave up on him, and, on top of that, he knew no French. (By the way, the nuns gave up on him at the end of the term.) I do not recall what I did to be awarded this particular privilege, but it must have been quite something, since the sisters all thought that I would be the one to became a priest, and therefore could do no wrong. Anyway, it was my task to sit in the back of the classroom for hours on end trying to think of something to enable Arthur to utter something that sounded something like the French scriptures. If Arthur did not come close enough, I was – so to speak – French toast.
As I said, I remember Lent that year, and it was different.
So what did I learn from my 1951 Lenten experience? Well, for starters, attending daily Mass is a good thing to do during Lent; walking a couple of miles before school won’t kill you; neither will wearing a silly paper crown at school, although you may wish you were dead. Also, there is nothing wrong with really getting into the gospels during Lent or at any other time. I am pretty sure that I did not learn anything from my interaction with Arthur – except maybe some obedience.
What I learned from remembering the experience is one of the lessons that the Ash Wednesday Gospel taught us: You can’t learn anything about a person’s Lent by watching from the outside. Some people might want you to judge them that way – they look like they are fasting and they like to be seen praying and giving alms. But Jesus says, that’s not what you should do. Whatever you choose to do, it should be something that God alone can see and judge.
In his 2014 Lenten message, Pope Francis quotes from 2 Cor 8:9 : “For you know the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that for your sake he became poor although he was rich, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” Developing this statement, the Pope says that we will not convert the world with our own physical resources, but, just as Christ did, with our poverty. We are spiritually rich because of Christ’s poverty, but if we want to help others to be spiritually rich, we can only do it if we are poor in spirit even as Christ was. There is no contradiction between being spiritually rich and being poor in spirit. When God gifts us with his grace, we become spiritually rich, but when we try or at least aspire to pass the riches along, we must understand that the gifts never belonged to us and never will. The gifts always belong to God and we only hold them “in earthen vessels” for the benefit of others. Perhaps we should use this Lent to increase our understanding that everything we have is gift and to pray for guidance from God as to how we ought to become poor as we approach the world to share these gifts.