On Ash Wednesday, Catholics are reminded that “…You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This sobering reflection, coupled with the ongoing financial meltdown, should at least make it easier to get in the right spirit for the season. Liturgical expert Mark Searle noted that one part of the Lenten journey is to bring us to compunction—a word etymologically related to “puncture,” as in deflating our egos.
As institutions headed by supposed masters of the universe fell to nothing, it showed us—as if there were any doubt—that no one is superhuman. Well-intentioned, if horribly misguided government policies; smart guys hedging their bets with credit default swaps, that themselves spawned futures markets betting on their success or ultimate failure; and good old untrammeled greed—all playing against a backdrop of regulatory malfeasance, got us to where we are today.
Moreover, the solution proffered by our Government may well end up being worse than the problem, with its multiple trillions in deficit spending.
Is there any good news?
Some speak of a new return to basics. This might even lead to a reassessment of some trends that brought us to our present culture rot. One can only hope…
The three traditional penitential practices of Lent are prayer, almsgiving, and fasting. Given the economic situation, there will be plenty of prayer, and some real fasting. There will probably be less almsgiving, even as the poor will require it all the more.
In his 2009 Lenten message, Pope Benedict XVI highlights fasting, and notes that:
In our own day, fasting seems to have lost something of its spiritual meaning, and has taken on, in a culture characterized by the search for material well-being, a therapeutic value for the care of one’s body. Fasting certainly bring benefits to physical well-being, but for believers, it is, in the first place, a “therapy” to heal all that prevents them from conformity to the will of God.
From what I have said thus far, it seems abundantly clear that fasting represents an important ascetical practice, a spiritual arm to do battle against every possible disordered attachment to ourselves. Freely chosen detachment from the pleasure of food and other material goods helps the disciple of Christ to control the appetites of nature, weakened by original sin, whose negative effects impact the entire human person.
Quite opportunely, an ancient hymn of the Lenten liturgy exhorts: “Let us use sparingly words, food and drink, sleep and amusements. May we be more alert in the custody of our senses.”
This Lent, the non-Catholic—along with the Catholic— can take comfort in those words. True, the discipline for many will be enforced by these unfortunate times, although the necessary cutting back will often be a reduction in luxuries, or at least non-essentials.
This Lent, let us all take back custody of our senses. We will be better for it.