I recently received a letter from a
friend about her frustration with choosing a Lenten penance. "A
couple of years ago," Mary wrote, "I tried fasting but
that just left a terrible taste in my mouth. On the two days a
week that I would fast, I ended up thinking more about Kentucky
Fried Chicken than anything spiritual. One year I tried going
to evening Mass at the parish and even spending 20 minutes a day
in silent prayer. But, truth be told, these activities didn't
do much to change my life, except make me aware of just how holy
I can act when push comes to shove. And once Easter came along,
I stopped going to evening Mass.
"Then last year," her letter
continued, "I decided to take a more positive approach after
hearing Father Dan's homily on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday.
So I volunteered one night a week at the soup kitchen that he
and the friars run in downtown Chicago. But talking to streetpeople
isn't my 'thing,' and I couldn't find anything particularly edifying
about washing dirty dishes. After all, I had more than my share
waiting for me in the kitchen sink once I got home. So with Lent
fast approaching, I find myself in my yearly quandary about adopting
a Lenten penance. I just don't know what to do or what it's supposed
to mean exactly. Got any ideas?"
Mary's letter reminded me of my own
annual struggles with choosing a Lenten penance that is helpful,
useful and meaningful. So I picked up my Bible, went to a local
park here in Hong Kong, and started reading and reflecting on
the life and teachings of our brother Jesus for some answers.
Our understanding of penance is based
on our understanding of sin. Unfortunately, many of us tend to
think of sin as only individual and specific acts which violate
the spirit or actually break one of the Ten Commandments: "I
missed Mass on Sunday." "I deliberately lied."
"I gossiped and dishonored the reputation of a co-worker."
When we have such a limited and narrow
sense of sin, we are naturally going to have a limited and narrow
sense of penance, of righting the individual wrongs we have committed.
So we decide to attend a weekday Mass, to tell the truth the next
time around, to praise the co-worker. But is it really possible
to make up for that special moment of grace experienced in last
Sunday's communal celebration of the Eucharist? Does telling the
truth the next time around actually fix yesterday's lie? Does
tomorrow's praise of a maligned co-worker really heal the harm
caused by our gossip?
When we think of Lenten
penance as simply vacuuming up the dirty spots on the carpet of
the soul, we bring a legalistic mentality to this 40-day period
of grace. We simply reduce it to an extended calculation of credits
Lenten penance really
has less to do about vacuum cleaners and the soul's dirty carpets,
and more to do with what the Chinese call the feng shui of
a building. In Chinese culture, before someone builds a house or
decorates a room, the feng shui expert is called in, using
the words of an ancient Chinese text, "to ensure harmony in
Still very much in
demand today, the feng shui expert is a trained, natural
ecologist of sorts who ensures that a building's design or a room's
position does not violate the harmony and interrelationships found
in a particular natural setting. By respecting the harmony of creation,
a building and what goes on inside of it can be positively influenced
by qi, the powerful energy arising from the harmonious relationship
between feng (wind) and shui (water), between the
feminine yin principle and masculine yang principle.
about the building or room destroys the harmony of the setting or
causes the delicate interrelationships to go askew, it is the task
of the feng shui expert to offer suggestions for redesign,
replacement or redecoration. In effect, the feng shui
expert is the protector and healer of nature's relationships.
is perfect for a meaningful and helpful understanding of sin and
Lenten penance. Sin is all about violating the natural harmony of
the soul. It deliberately skews the God-given interrelationships
between God, self and neighbor. It slams the door of my heart in
God's face. It is losing touch with my middle, my center, and spinning
out of self-control. Sin builds walls to hide behind and constructs
bridges that lead me away from my neighbor.
That is exactly
the point of Jesus' great parable of sin and repentance: the prodigal
son (Luke 15:11-32). In this story the younger son demands his inheritance
early, then walks away from his father and family. When he arrives
in a distant country, he allows his life and his future, represented
by his inheritance, to crumble before his eyes. Like a child's top
that has lost its momentum, everything loses its spin and comes
to a grinding halt. All his primary relationships have been destroyed.
And this poor boy wakes up one day and finds himself among the pigs,
a stunning image for just how much his life and its interrelationships
are in disarray.
Revised Standard Version's translation of this parable states
that the prodigal son soon "came to himself" (15:17).
It was as if he became the feng shui expert of his
own soul and started reestablishing the primary relationship with
himself. He spent time in self-reflection and brutal self-honesty.
That period of time led him back to the road leading toward home,
to the relationships that needed to be mended and ultimately to
the reestablishment of natural harmony, symbolized in the wonderful
coming-home party given by his father.
is not simply fixing a broken commandment. It is reestablishing
the interrelationships, bonds and connections that our pride, anger,
gluttony, envy, greed, laziness, lust--our sin--throw into disarray.
It is getting back on track where we belong. It is experiencing
the energy--the grace--that comes with maintaining and developing
healthy, balanced bonds with God, self and others. In short, the
purpose of Lenten penance is to do the work of the feng shui
expert: to reestablish and preserve the harmonious interrelationships
intended by God at the dawn of creation.
Do's and Don'ts
is not some form of cosmetic surgery that simply changes the external
actions of our lives. It must move each of us beyond pushing away
from the lunch table, giving some spare change to a beggar or spending
an extra 10 minutes in prayer. It must get underneath the skin and
convert the heart--that is the center out of which everything flows.
"For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, unchastity,
theft, false witness, blasphemy" (Matthew 15:19). The heart
is the place that the 40 days of Lent are meant to refashion. As
we hear in the first reading of Ash Wednesday, "Yet even now,
says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting,
and weeping, and mourning; Rend your hearts, not your garments..."
If my Lenten
penance doesn't knock on the door of my heart, causing it to open
and expand, then perhaps I will find myself among the scribes and
Pharisees whom Jesus condemned for missing the boat even though
they were doing the right things: "...You pay tithes of mint
and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier things of
the law: judgment and mercy and fidelity....You cleanse the outside
of cup and dish, but inside they are full of plunder and self-indulgence....Even
so, on the outside you appear righteous, but inside you are filled
with hypocrisy and evildoing" (Matthew 23:23,25,28).
of the prodigal son tells us that our Lenten penance should convert
our hearts toward the relationships and obligations we have with
others. Penance should be the booster rocket that brings us back
into the gravitational pull and orbit of others.
tend to think that penance is a private and individual affair between
each of us and God. But that challenging 25th chapter of Matthew's
Gospel makes it blatantly clear that our relationship with God is
verified through our solidarity with others: "...whatever you
did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me"
Letter of John says it in more striking terms: "If anyone says,
'I love God,' but hates his brother, he is a liar..." (4:20).
That is why some people choose to adopt the traditional spiritual
and corporal works of mercy as a form of penance: They all deal
with entering into a relationship with another. Without question,
my individual Lenten penance must have some kind of social manifestation
or community consequences.
makes it very clear that when doing a Lenten penance we should not
hop onto a New Orleans Mardi Gras float and parade through the streets
for public viewing: "[But] take care not to perform righteous
deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have
no recompense from your heavenly Father" (Matthew 6:1). Jesus
continues by saying, "But when you give alms, do not let your
left hand know what your right is doing" (Matthew 6:3). Our
prayers should be succinct, to the point and said behind closed
doors (Matthew 6:5-6), and our outward appearance or countenance
should never betray the fact that we are fasting (Matthew 6:16-18).
should never call explicit attention to itself or fill any of us
with an arrogant sense of being holier than others. Jesus made this
point in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke
18:9-14). The Pharisee was filled with pride for not being a public
sinner, and for fasting twice a week and tithing his income. The
tax collector, on the other hand, was deeply aware of his own sinfulness.
Jesus noted that it was this tax collector who was justified in
the eyes of God.
If my Lenten
penance puts me on a pedestal above other people and not
among them, causing me to reach down to them and not
out to them, then I have made a tragic mistake. As my sister
has often reminded me, "The higher you climb, the harder you
Fasting and Almsgiving
tradition has continually promoted prayer, fasting and almsgiving
as the three basic and fundamental forms of penance. If you're like
me, you might initially balk at them, thinking them to be remnants
of an outdated form of spirituality. But these three forms of penance
are still excellent, perennial vehicles for reestablishing and fostering
the harmony between the three natural relationships of God, self
the most intimate expression of our love for God. Because God has
begun a relationship with each one of us in a unique way, each one
of us has a different way to express the history of our relationship.
For some, the rosary is the expression of love. For others, it is
Scripture reading, charismatic prayer or numerous other forms of
communal prayer. Some of us find our love summed up in centering
prayer or solitary, prayerful walks in nature.
form it takes, prayer heightens our awareness of the presence of
God in whom "...we live and move and have our being..."
(Acts 17:28). It fine-tunes our spiritual antennae. Our individual
time of prayer not only makes us immediately aware of this graced
relationship that God shares with us but should also spill over
into everything we do: the care we give to preparing meals, the
mood we bring home from the office, the way we relate to others,
our efforts to promote peace and justice in this world. Our great
challenge with adopting prayer as a Lenten penance is to live
our prayers, not simply say them.
tradition has always held in high esteem the value and necessity
of the prayer of intercession. We never go to God alone in prayer;
we bring the world with its burdens and sufferings along with us.
We intercede for the living and the dead because we know that the
power of God's love experienced in prayer does have an effect upon
the hearts of others and, indeed, the world. One of the best ways
to prepare for a moment of prayer or the celebration of the Eucharist
is to watch the evening news or read a newspaper.
effects of prayer in my life can also be found in my relationship
with myself. Prayer often brings me face-to-face with my sometimes
chaotic and divided heart. The growing awareness of God's presence
in my life often brings with it the awareness of just how far I
have wandered away from my own center, my own heart. I become aware
of just how restless I am or how little time I have taken for rest,
relaxation and exercise. Prayer helps me rediscover and once again
enter into a relationship not only with God and others but also
of penance is fasting, an ancient expression of repentance found
in the Hebrew Scriptures. The house of Israel, when pressed by Samuel
to turn away from false gods and return to the Lord, expressed contrition
through fasting (1 Samuel 7:6). When called to conversion by Jonah,
the people of Nineveh called a fast (Jonah 3:5). The Prophet Isaiah
explains true fasting, emphasizing you should be "[s]haring
your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless;
Clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back
on your own" (58:7). Fasting, therefore, is a very physical
way to express the fact that our relationships with God and others
have gotten out of kilter.
the Baptist and his followers, Jesus and his disciples do not fast--they
eat and drink (Mark 2:18-22 and Matthew 11:18-19). For Christians,
standing with sinners on equal ground, sharing bread with them and
forming a bond of solidarity with them are more important than fasting.
Perhaps that is why St. Augustine, repeating the ancient teaching
of the fathers of the Church, says that fasting is merely avarice
and greed unless we give what we would have eaten to the poor and
can also be a painful admission that I am not free, that my life
is enslaved, obsessed or addicted to external things such as food,
drink, codependent relationships, sex, television, privacy and
the like. It can be a stern teacher, reminding me that I have
severed the most basic of relationships--the one with myself--and
allowed my life to spin out of self-control. It can speak loudly
of loneliness and selfishness, of life with the pigs.
fasting, which many today think of as an individual and private
form of penance, was always intended to have strong social implications.
The Oxfam Fast and Catholic Relief Services' Operation Rice Bowl
bring us back into relationship with our larger, global family
of brothers and sisters on the earth. Fasting from television
and the Internet, and sharing that time with immediate family
members and neglected friends, can help mend more immediate broken
relationships. Fasting from that second beer at dinner can bring
a more alert presence to family members. A most painful type of
fasting involves entering a supervised program or group for chemical
or drug addiction, but it can once again bring hope, healing and
vitality to our personal lives. Fasting from our habits of wasting
food, paper and water can help heal the very fragile relationship
we have with the physical creation with which God has blessed
is another form of penance. According to the Hebrew Scriptures,
almsgiving, which is derived from the Greek word for mercy, restores
to the world the harmonious order intended by the Creator. We
share with one another and with the wider family of creation a
very real interdependence. The Lord tells the Israelites that
every seventh year their fields, as well as their olive orchards
and vineyards, are to rest and lie fallow "...that the poor
among you may eat of it and the beasts of the field may eat what
the poor leave..." (Exodus 23:11).
the Israelites are told that every third year they should take
one tenth of their produce and store it within their towns. Then
"the Levite who has no share in the heritage with you, and
also the alien, the orphan and the widow who belong to your community,
may come and eat their fill; so that the Lord, your God, may bless
you in all that you undertake" (14:29). Thus their charity
and mercy toward immigrants and the poor help to foster and strengthen
their relationship with the Lord.
is more than the simple charity and philanthropy that is expressive
of a merciful, compassionate heart. For the harmonious God-intended
order--what St. Paul calls "equality" (2 Corinthians
8:14)--to be reestablished, we must be aware of what the Great
Almsgiver has given to each one of us in Christ.
because of the spiritual blessings Christ had given to the gentiles
that Paul could then encourage them to share their material blessings
with the poor of Jerusalem (Romans 15:25-27 and 1 Corinthians
16:1-3). We Christians give alms to the poor and needy as an acknowledgment
and expression of gratitude for what we have been given by God
almsgiving challenges each one of us to stretch the size of our
hearts so that the lives of others are enriched, following the
example of Christ, whom Paul proposes as the model of almsgiving.
"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" (2 Corinthians 8:9).
Furthermore, following the example of the poor widow whose generous
gift impressed Jesus' attention, we give out of our poverty and
not merely out of our abundance (Mark 12:41-44).
causes us to take a hard look at our sometimes selfish hearts
and return to the streets so we can root ourselves in the center
of any situation where there are poor, needy or hurting people.
We can express this traditional form of penance by giving the
clothes we no longer wear to the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
Or we can write out a generous check to a charitable organization.
Other ways to give alms include donating our time to a soup kitchen
in thanksgiving for the Bread of Life in our own life or writing
a note of encouragement to a catechumen in the parish. We can
share with others the water of the world and its effect in our
own life by washing dishes by hand instead of using the dishwasher,
and share other resources of the earth through voluntary recycling.
We can babysit without pay for busy parents whose schedules or
life-styles do not afford them the luxury of a "night on
the town." And when we give unconditional forgiveness to
those who have hurt us deeply, we offer the most precious of alms.
Mary had asked me if I could give her any ideas for Lenten penance,
but that's something each of us must decide for ourselves. Our religious
tradition clearly challenges us to see whether or not we are open
to and in harmony with self, God and others.
penance should bring me back to my personal center of gravity, to
a humble, grateful and generous heart. My heart is the foundation
of my life. Penance should deepen my awareness and experience of
a loving, merciful God who runs out of his way to greet me with
open arms at every moment of my life, like the father of the prodigal
son. Such an awareness gives momentum to my life and provides a
sure shelter for any season and any weather.
of that loving God, my Lenten penance should open up the door and
windows of my soul so that I can roll out the red carpet for my
brothers and sisters who are in need of forgiveness, companionship,
encouragement and the basic essentials of life. Wherever there is
a strong foundation, a sturdy shelter and a home open to others,
there is harmony--St. Paul's "equality"--and good feng
shui. To discover and maintain such a place is to be home
where God intends me to be.
Haase, O.F.M., has preached parish missions across the United
States, Africa and Asia. He holds a Ph.D. in historical theology
from Fordham University. He is the author of Swimming
in the Sun: Discovering the Lord's Prayer With Francis of Assisi
and Thomas Merton and two audiocassette series, Toward
Freedom and Joy: Living in God's Presence and Apples
in Eden: Seven Deadly Sins (all from St. Anthony Messenger
Press). Father Haase is currently a missionary among the Chinese