“What are you giving up for Lent, Father?” That’s what a young man asked me at a public lecture last week, since Ash Wednesday is only three days away. So I’ll give you the answer I gave him: I’ll just do what I’ve been doing every Lent for the last 45 years: no sweets, no alcohol, no snacks, some extra charitable giving, stations of the Cross, etc. But on the other hand, life changes. For example, over the last few months I’ve noticed how addicted to my phone I’ve become. How many times at day do you look at your iphone, that little portal into another world? No self-respecting American sits in a waiting room or at a red light without checking his or her phone. And it’s not healthy. So a new fasting is necessary: from screen time. I’ve resolved, for the next 40 days, to use my phone only as a phone (which includes texts). But no emails, no internet, no music, no apps and no media of any kind on my phone. I’ll need a lot of help to pull this off, so I’ll be praying more in Lent too. But I want to practice the presence of God while in line at Safeway or stopped in traffic. I am resolved to see the souls around me, to say hello to people rather than hiding behind screen and earbuds, to pray the rosary or just be quiet if I’m stopped dead on the Bay Bridge. By denying myself those little hits of digital excitement, I hope to see the trees, the sky, the clouds and the sea, to appreciate all the beautiful people in cars, bikes, and sidewalks, and say a prayer for them. I hope to live the precious sacrament of the present moment.
As we will hear in Ash Wednesday’s Gospel, we draw closer to God through Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving. The most perfect prayer is time with the Blessed Sacrament, either at daily Mass or in adoration. The most perfect fasting is from food, feeling that lean hunger in your flesh. The most perfect almsgiving is cold hard cash, like a hundred bucks for suffering poor of Venezuela this Sunday, or a significant percentage of your wealth to a favorite charity.
I know a lady who gives up talking for Lent. Not a bad idea. Mother Teresa taught her sisters: “If we talk always we cannot pray. Jesus is not present within me. We must keep silence. When a person really keeps silence, she is a holy sister…. if we keep silence, silence cannot be corrected; if we speak, if we answer back, we make mistakes.” She was repeating the wisdom of Ben Sirach from our first reading: “one’s faults appear when one speaks.” Of course, sometimes one has to speak, like I’m speaking now. Priests have to preach, and parents have to teach their children, and popes have to speak clearly on heresy and sin. The silence of parents, priests, bishops, and popes over the crimes of the world and the Church is destroying our society. We must speak as the Holy Spirit guides us, but speech born of anger, negativity, or judgmentalism is not from God.
Splinters and Planks
“Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye but not the wooden beam in your own?” Jesus asks today. The answer is obvious. We love to criticize others. Not infrequently a penitent in my confessional cannot think up any sins. A surefire solution is for me to ask if he or she has gossiped. “Oh sure,” is the common reply. “Everybody gossips!” We love picking at each others’ splinters. Now, helping someone get a splinter out of their eye is not a bad thing, but it depends how we get it out.
Jesus gives us three rules for removing splinters. First Rule: you have to think of the splinter-bearer as your brother: “Brother, let me remove the splinter from your eye….” We would find life so much easier if we called to mind that all those annoying people are my brothers and sisters, children of the same God. Second Rule: you have to believe you can remove your own splinter, or wooden beam: “Remove the beam from your own eye first.” I’ll never forget a penance I once received for confessing impatient driving: I was to stay in one lane all the way home. I actually drove two hours without changing my lane, and it was the most restful, joyful drive I’ve ever had. Third Rule: you must correct your brother. “Then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.” If you had a splinter in your eye wouldn’t you want someone to help you get it out? We are supposed to correct our brother’s faults. We remove the wooden beam from our own eye so that we can remove the splinter from our brother’s eye.
We fast in Lent to see our own sins more clearly, so that we can help build a more “just, verdant, and peaceful world” (words I hear from the McArthur Foundation, proud supporter of NPR). We weaken our stubborn arrogance in order to break down our resistance to change. But not just for ourselves. Once healed, we are healthy enough to help others overcome their ailments. We are one body in Christ, the divine physician. Let us pray for the grace to help each other become stronger in Christ over these next 40 days.