The Church and explicitly our liturgies may assist us in “making a good Lent,” but if you yourself do not make a genuine effort, do not expect much if any spiritual benefit. In the realm of the Spirit, both divine gift and human response are always intimately related: the more one gives of oneself, the more one receives of the Spirit. Mere passivity, or sloth, will not bring to you or to me the blessings of Lent; on the contrary, sloth, or spiritual laziness, will cause us to advance backwards, to fall from grace, to retreat from making genuine spiritual progress. The Church and liturgies provide us with spiritual gifts, but without genuine effort on your part, they will not profit you for salvation, or for happiness in this life.
Folks often ask, “What can the Church do for me? What is the Church doing for my children?” The answer must be: You yourself must make the effort. Each adult, each child, must make a real effort to receive spiritual benefits. The best that we have to offer is the celebration of the Eucharist together, as our common worship of God, and as our helping one another be attentive, receive, and give. What can our Eucharistic celebrations do for one who does not attend? Or if the person attends, he or she does not pay close attention?
I strongly urge each of us to think now about what we will do, not do, for Lent. Keep in mind the goal: a deeper union with Christ and with our fellow human beings through love, self-discipline, some self-overcoming. Also, remember that Sundays are not part of Lent, so any fast or food abstinence you take for Lent does not apply on Sundays.
I would rather not tell you what you do for Lent, but I make a few suggestions to help you decide what to take on, what to give up:
First, some kind of self-denial in the realm of food and drink is an ancient Catholic practice, and can be beneficial. Those who eat candy and sweets would do well to make a hard effort to avoid candy and sweets during Lent. Another form of beneficial self-discipline is to abstain from all eating between meals. Remember that on Ash Wednesday and each Friday in Lent all Catholics are required to abstain from eating meat; and Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of fasting for all but the young, elderly, and ill.
Second, find a penance that corrects your negligences during the year. The two most important areas: increase of prayer and spiritual reading; and an increase of deeds of mercy and charity to others. Be concrete, and prepare to assist some others in their needs.
"If you choose, you can keep the commandments, they will save you. If you trust in God, you too shall live…Before man are life and death, good and evil, whichever he chooses shall be given him.” So speaks Sirach in our first reading we hear on 11-12 February. Note well: Sirach’s document, with its profound advice, was not included as scripture by the ancient Jews, nor by the much later Protestant Reformers (1500’s), because the translation that was preserved was not in Hebrew, but in Greek. And yet, the essence of Sirach’s wisdom, quoted above, shows up in every culture of which I am aware, in some form. Because of the ubiquity of the insight, no less a mind than St. Thomas Aquinas accepts it as the core of the “natural law” in every human heart: “Do good, and avoid evil.” This innate awareness to do good and avoid evil is what St. Thomas called “the preamble” to the natural law, to the human understanding of what is right, or just, in human affairs.
In other words, there is an inherent sense in every human being who is not seriously deformed that to love is good, to hate is evil; to preserve and nurture life is good, and to destroy innocent life is evil. In our common humanity, unless it has been perverted (birth defects, drugs, very serious accidents, repeated bad choices), each of us has an intuitive sense for, and love of, goodness, truth, and beauty.
Doing good or evil becomes a way of life. An evildoer becomes a devious person. Those who do good seek to live in the light, and not hide their deeds. A doer of good becomes increasingly simple, clear-sighted, transparent, penetrated by light. One who does evil may begin slowly, with occasional crimes, such as stealing, or lying. Over time, the evil becomes a way of life, and he becomes a thief, a liar, a devious person, one who will not give a straight answer, an accuser, an increasingly vicious soul. Of such persons the best advice is: Stay away from them, for they are trouble.
Choose carefully, because the choices made determine the character of the man or woman. And as Herakleitos wrote long before Christ, “A man’s character is his fate.” In other words, by our choices, we either free ourselves, or enslaves ourselves. One who steals becomes a thief and a liar. One who tells the truth becomes a courageous truth-teller, and will tell the truth even when it hurts, or when it brings loss of position, money, favor. My largest disappointment in teaching children in grade school, high school, and college was dealing with liars. A young person would be caught doing wrong, and deny it right to your face: “No, I did not do it.” The liar chooses self-protection over telling the truth and taking the consequences. As I realized and would tell young persons: “Any wrong-doing can be admitted, corrected, forgiven; but the liar cannot be corrected or guided. The liar lives in the straight-jacket that he has woven around himself, and becomes increasingly encased in deceit.”
The author of the Gospel of John speaks the truth clearly: “Those who do evil hate the light, and refuse to come to the light, lest their evil deeds be exposed.” And “those who do good come to the light, that it may be seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.” One’s evil is one’s own; one’s good deeds are done in cooperation between a human being and the Good itself, which we call “God.”