Lenten Reflection II: Why Lenten Penance?


Recently, a good friend of mine wrote to ask how my Lenten resolutions were faring. It’s half-way through Lent, and given what I wrote here on Ash Wednesday (located in the “Thoughts for the Day” category just below the masthead of this blog site), I think I owe her an answer. I’m hoping that the reflection needed for sharing like this might reignite my own Lenten fire. Perhaps it might also encourage reflection in others. They might even share their experiences using the “Comment” feature on this blog site. And that in turn might encourage the rest of us to “save” our Lents before it’s too late.

In general, my Lent is going well. Two elements have made it special. A third (a chance conversation) has given me a fresh understanding of the purpose of Lenten penance.

The two special elements are first of all my experience with an emerging “Ecumenical Table” in our local area. The second is a Lenten study group I’m leading about the historical Jesus.

I’ve mentioned the “Ecumenical Table” several times before in these blog postings. It’s a lay-led gathering of Christians who are looking for deeper meaning in Sunday liturgies. We’ve been gathering monthly for Lord’s Supper liturgies since Pentecost last year. But this Lent we’ve decided to meet every Sunday in a more focused attempt to discern whether our form of community worship is what we’re seeking ultimately. The liturgies the past three weeks have been beautiful and thoughtful. And hearing the voices of women as Lord’s Supper celebrants and homilists is unbelievably enriching. It makes it so apparent how the Catholic Church impoverishes itself and its people by insisting on an all-male clergy.

The second special element of this year’s Lent is our little seminar on the historical Jesus. We’ve been meeting each Wednesday night for an hour and a half. Our purpose is (as Marcus Borg put it) to “meet Jesus again for the first time.” We’re trying to encounter the Jesus of history who stands behind the faith-inspired interpretations of the canonical gospels.

So far the seminar has been going well, although I’ve found my own leadership uneven. But the participants (about 25 at each session) have been unbelievably generous in their showing up, contributing to discussions, and overlooking leadership shortcomings. (Some have told me it’s their Lenten penance!) In any case, the discussion of the gospel readings for the Sunday following each Wednesday’s meeting is proving to be especially rewarding. The same holds true for the segments of the PBS series, “From Jesus to Christ.”

I’ve even found the sessions spilling over into casual conversations. In particular two of my ex-priest friends who have done me the honor of attending have helped clarify my own thought and have advised me about how to do better over hot chocolates at our local gathering place, Berea Coffee and Tea.

The third special element of this year’s Lent, my attempts at Lenten discipline, has been greatly influenced by a conversation I had with a friend weeks before Lent began. He and his wife had come over for supper, and I offered him a cocktail beforehand. My friend declined. He said his son was alcoholic, and as an act of solidarity with his son’s efforts to resist alcohol, my friend too was giving it up.

At first I supposed he was thinking in terms of good example. But then I realized there was far more to it than that. After all, his son wasn’t present to witness my friend’s abstinence. Instead my friend was expressing his faith in the basic unity of all human beings. His abstinence affirmed that acts of solidarity with others somehow influence them even when they are not physically present – even when they’re not consciously aware that those acts are being performed. That’s a deep act of faith quite relevant to Lenten disciplines.

My friend’s words made me realize that at least one purpose of abstinence and other forms of what we used to call “penance” is to raise consciousness of our unity with others – especially with whose negative experiences of life we’ve managed to escape. The hope is that the resulting vicarious experience will somehow strengthen them and move us to action towards eliminating the causes of their distress. So for example,

• Following my friend’s example of abstinence from alcohol establishes a bond with those struggling to break addictions to liquor and drugs.

• Not eating meat somehow unites us with the hungry and raises consciousness about the effects meat-eating has on them and on the environment in general.

• Lowering the water temperature in one’s morning shower creates solidarity with those in U.S. prison camps subjected to water torture in various forms – including cold and scalding showers and waterboarding.

• Turning off the TV above the elliptical machine while exercising, and repeating one’s mantram instead begins to break the bond with the culture of overconsumption and destructive growth.

• The same holds true for establishing a daily discipline of consulting e-mail only once or twice a day instead of every fifteen minutes.

My friend’s refusal of liquor that night taught me that the realization of human solidarity in addictions and other problems is the whole point of Lent and its “penance.” All the rest including formal worship and study of the historical Jesus is simply means to that end.

No, I take that back. The end isn’t realizing human solidarity. The end is doing something about it.

And yet as Gandhi taught us, the end is mysteriously contained in the means – however seemingly insignificant.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

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