There is no question that when most of us think about Lent, we think about fasting, about giving something up. People offer various reasons for this practice. Some see it as a way to strengthen their resolve in order to better avoid the temptations that come their way. They point to the fact that while Jesus was fasting in the desert, he was faced with temptations and overcame them. Others point to the fact that denying themselves certain pleasures, they can better focus their attention on God.
I am fairly certain that I have told this story before, but it still stands in my mind as the best example of the real purpose of fasting. Many years ago, I was asked by an elderly friar if he could “hitch a ride” with me as I traveled to the town in which he was stationed. He had been on vacation and had stopped at the motherhouse of our province to find out if anyone was going in his direction so he could save the price of a bus ticket. As it happened, I was driving to that town that very night to attend a meeting on the next day.
Because the Brother was so elderly, I thought that he might fall asleep on the trip. Nothing could have been further from the truth. During the entire three mile journey, he told me story after story about his long life as a friar. When our conversation turned to the subject of Lent (which was about to start during the very next week), he told me about a particular confessor who had suggested to him that he choose a penance which he could continue beyond the forty days of Lent. He accepted the advice of the confessor wholeheartedly. At the end of the Lenten Season, he continued in his Lenten practice.
The next year he chose another Lenten practice, again remembering the advice of his confessor. As the years passed, he always chose something that he could continue after Lent had run its course. For more than sixty years, he continued down this path. He commented at the end of his story that these practices were not only still part of his life, but they had also actually changed his life. He was who he was because of his way of keeping Lent. I marveled at his story which he told me very humbly and without any attempt to garner praise for his way of life.
Fasting is a part of our path of conversion. Herein lays the essence of Lent. We are called to change. We are called to repentance. If we fast, we do so in order to draw closer to the ideal that is held up for us in the Gospel.
A few days ago, I wrote about “taking up” rather than “giving up.” Jesus asks each of us to take up our cross and to follow him. Once we take up the cross, we cannot simply let it go at the end of the forty day Lenten Season. Jesus carried his cross to the end. We must try to do the same.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator