Friday, March 2, 2012

Cleansers for the soul

The sun came streaming in the windows of my kitchen. I wanted to sit and bask in its warmth, and revel in the promise of spring. Unfortunately, all that brightness spotlighted the smudges on the cupboards, the dust on the kick plates, and the rain spots on the windows. It was hard to relax when my deficiencies as a housekeeper were so clearly evident. It was time to get out the spring-cleaning supplies.

Fasting, almsgiving, and prayer
The liturgical season of Lent is like the sun streaming into the window of our souls. We might say that Lent is the equivalent of a spiritual spring-cleaning. Its cleaning supplies are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Fasting helps us clear the clutter to make space for God. Fasting does not have to be limited to food. Fasting from social media, for example, can free up time for God. Almsgiving and works of charity move us away from our naturally self-centered inclinations. They help us develop a greater sensitivity and a more generous response to the needs of others. Prayer is essential to entering into that intimate relationship with God that informs our relationships with others and with creation. This triad of spiritual practices expresses our sorrow for sin, and nurtures our desire to grow closer to God.

More than a "thou shall not" mentality
In my recollections about Lent from childhood, Lent was a time to make reparation for the bad things a person had done. We accomplished this through our Lenten observances, which seemed geared to “giving something up”. A “thou shall not” mentality permeated our behavior. The general attitude was that if a person did no harm, then the person could successfully avoid sin. The way to goodness was to avoid badness. We gave little consideration to the flip side of “thou shall not.” We rarely considered that the good we had neglected to do could also be a type of sin.

More than a "me and God"friendship
The understanding of Lent today is more broadly attuned to the social dimension of human interaction than in the past. The personal piety of repentance thrusts us outwards. Lenten spirituality goes far beyond saying a few extra prayers, spending more time in church, donating money to a good cause, giving up chocolate, or limiting computer time, although it may include all of these things. Lenten spirituality is directed outward towards the world, not inward towards the self. Lent reminds us that our relationship with God is much bigger than an exclusively “me and God” friendship.

If we have any doubt about this, we only have to listen to the words of Jesus who pointedly told his followers to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, comfort the sick, and visit the imprisoned. Lent challenges us to reach out to those in our families, communities, and in the world who are in need, physically, psychologically, emotionally, or spiritually. When we respond to the needs of those on the margins, we embrace a “thou shall” approach to Lenten spirituality.

Lent re-orients us to the good
Lent is a time to re-orient our lives to the good, for the purpose of reflecting God’s radiant love in the world. Our penitential practices do not simply remind us of our failures and deficiencies. Nor do they simply help us correct the error of our ways. While it remains important to repent and to avoid doing wrong, it is equally important to actively practice doing good. Spiritual practices during Lent help us embody the spirit of goodness long after the Lenten season has ended.
Like the rays of sunshine that spotlight the smudges on the cupboards, our Lenten practices illuminate the areas of our life that need some polishing. It is not that we are poor housekeepers. It is just that houses always need cleaning. It is not that we are lousy people or terrible sinners. It is just that we are always in need of conversion.

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