By Michelle Francl-Donnay
And know that I am with you always; yes, to the end of time.
– Mt. 28:20b
As I write this, Lent has not quite spent itself. Still, wisps of resurrection are beginning to show themselves amidst the solemn violet trappings of Holy Week. At choir last night, we practiced Pange Lingua, anticipating the stripping of the altar on Holy Thursday; half an hour later, the Easter sequence was rising. A stray alleluia escaped at Morning Prayer, even as we read from Isaiah of the suffering servant. And Mike is doing his laundry, to be sure of enough white dress shirts for the liturgies to come.
My eyes are already looking for the rising of the Son, though there is yet the passion to pass through. I’m ready to bring back the alleluias in full voice, see the church filled with light and life, and let go of my self-imposed Lenten disciplines.
A friend, a recent convert to Catholicism, asked me one morning after Mass what happens with our Lenten practices when Easter dawns. Do we end them with a sigh of relief and stop thinking about them until next Ash Wednesday?
I gave up meat this Lent; my family did not. Six days a week, I have been making steak sandwiches, dishing out sloppy joes and putting roast chicken on the table, all the while eating bread and cheese and vegetable soup. Quite aside from the challenges that has presented to my resolve, the shopping list has grown more complex, and it has made whoever cooks a bit more harried when two different menus need to land on the table simultaneously.
There was certainly a penitential aspect to my Lenten practice, a not unnecessary sense of expiation. As St. Gregory the Great recommended, “in doing penance it is necessary to deprive oneself of as many lawful pleasures as we had the misfortune to indulge in unlawful ones.” I like roast chicken, I felt deprived.
But this particular Lenten journey has provided me with something more than the chance to atone for my sins. It has been what Pope Benedict XVI called in his Lenten address of 2009 “an itinerary of intense spiritual training.”
Pope Benedict suggests the work doesn’t end with Lent. My Lenten discipline was not merely a temporary swapping of indulgence for deprivation, somehow seeking to balance the books with God. As with any sort of training, the practice is not the goal, but the means to something else. When we freely embrace self-denial, says Pope Benedict, “we make a statement that our brother or sister in need is not a stranger.” Self-denial, particularly fasting, teaches us to maintain “a welcoming and attentive attitude towards our brothers and sisters.”
This period of intense training, of a developing awareness of the difficulty of scarcity in the midst of plenty, is about to give way to the joys of Easter, but it has left me with questions to ponder amid the celebration of this season of redemption. How can I be aware of those around me who do not have what they require to meet bodily needs? In what ways can I welcome the poor into my life, as brothers and sisters, not strangers?
I leave the training of Lent behind, but not without thought for what comes next. In the words of poet Rainer Marie Rilke, “We who have been cradled close in your hands, are lavishly flung forth.” And so I go, to love and serve the Lord – and care for my sisters and brothers.
Use us and our gifts for your newness that pushes beyond all that we can say or imagine. We are grateful for words given us; we are more grateful for your word fleshed among us.
– Walter Brueggemann in “Called beyond Comfort Zone”
Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Bryn Mawr. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.