With five Sundays down, the Lenten journey continues.
As the penitential season moves along, so must the introspection of the Christian disciple. The believer must be cautious not to get stuck in overthinking things. There is a serious danger of paralysis by analysis, of a certain navel gazing that impedes a real course of action for change and reform.
The Christian has to be cautious about the comfort and at times self-indulgence that interior reflection can provide or nurture. At some point, in the midst of her thoughts and feelings, the believer just has to get out of her own head or heart and just do something.
But what? What actions are recommended to the believer as she seeks to adjust and realign her life after some very serious Lenten soul-searching?
Before describing spiritual action items, it might be helpful to name some of the bad spirits that Lent is meant to help us fight and leave behind.
In his Lenten Message this year, Pope Francis refers to the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, which is found in the teachings of Jesus Christ. In the account, the Rich Man is absorbed in himself and neglects Lazarus, who is a poor and sick man suffering at his very doorpost. When the Rich Man dies, his omission toward Lazarus merits him a place in hell. He is in torment and sees Lazarus in heaven, in the “bosom of Abraham.”
Influenced by his Jesuit spirituality, Pope Francis uses the biblical story to identify the three bad spirits of greed, vanity, and pride. He explains the progressive corruption of the human person through them, writing: “[Money] is the main cause of corruption and a source of envy, strife and suspicion… it can come to dominate us, even to the point of becoming a tyrannical idol. Instead of being an instrument at our service for doing good and showing solidarity towards others, money can chain us and the entire world to a selfish logic that leaves no room for love and hinders peace.”
The pope continues: “…the rich man’s greed makes him vain. His personality finds expression in appearances, in showing others what he can do. But his appearance masks an interior emptiness. His life is a prisoner to outward appearances, to the most superficial and fleeting aspects of existence.”
And finally, Pope Francis observes: “The lowest rung of this moral degradation is pride. The rich man dresses like a king and acts like a god, forgetting that he is merely mortal. For those corrupted by love of riches, nothing exists beyond their own ego. Those around them do not come into their line of sight. The result of attachment to money is a sort of blindness. The rich man does not see the poor man who is starving, hurting, lying at his door.”
In identifying these enemies of the human soul, the question remains: In seeing these bad spirits within her, what actions can the believer do to remedy this spiritual sickness?
In having the question posed in such a context, the traditional practices of almsgiving, fasting, and prayer take on a new light as they are seen as the tested and proven answers to the question and as the necessary actions of the person who wants a healthy soul and a strong spirit.
In the usual life of the church, these historical practices are regularly approached with an assumed comprehension, a sense of raw duty, or even just indifference. Regrettably, the question they answer and the help they provide appears to be unknown or unappreciated by many believers who perhaps have not walked through the Lenten desert of self-evaluation or who have refused to make a thorough examination of their consciences.
To those who know that their souls are not well and who wish to be healed, they cling and eagerly observe the ascetical practices of the Christian tradition. Such believers know and hope that almsgiving will challenge and correct the greed in their hearts, that fasting will temper and balance the vanity in their souls, and that prayer will humble and mature the pride within their spirits.
These are the concrete actions passed on to the believer in her struggle to follow the more excellent way of love taught and modeled by Jesus Christ. They are actions that call the believer out of her own thoughts and feelings and create a forum for grace to work and flourish within her soul.
This is the summons and labor of Lent. What begins in the heart is to be worked out in the world, and the practices of almsgiving, fasting, and prayer are the trusted tools for the fight against greed, vanity, and pride.