Lent and the Affluent Heart
Fasting makes sense if it really affects our security, and also if a benefit to others comes from it, if it helps us to grow in the spirit of the Good Samaritan, who bends down to his brother in need and takes care of him. Fasting involves choosing a sober life, which does not waste, which does not “discard”. Fasting helps us to train the heart to essentiality and sharing. It is a sign of awareness and responsibility in the face of injustices, abuses, especially towards the poor and the little ones, and is a sign of our trust in God and His providence. [Pope Francis].
It is easy to find what is closest to our heart — where our treasure is. Does the word of God or the endorsement of a celebrity carry more weight? Does our lifestyle feature trivial pleasures or diligent devotions? Is Lent a season of feasting at dinner parties or fasting and penance?
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. [Matthew 6:21].
We know that spending in charity is a devotional act. However, we don’t always remember that we are spiritually accountable for every type of spending, whether of time, money or effort.
Every human pleasure is meant to be a stepping-stone to knowing God better or to discovering some new aspect of God. Only when that stepping-stone becomes an end in itself—that is, when we over-identify with it—does it distort the divine intention. Everything in the universe is meant to be a reminder of God’s presence. [Thomas Keating, The Human Condition: Contemplation and Transformation].
Our worrying about tomorrow’s prosperity slowly drags us toward hypocrisy. We think in financial instead of devotional terms. Our religious observances require cost/benefit analyses. We expect flattery when we give and fear blame when we withhold. Has Lent become just a self-promoting contrivance?
What kind of wealth are we accumulating? Is our material affluence producing spiritual poverty? Is it refining our character and debasing our integrity?
We pray, too often, not to do God’s will, but to enlist God’s assistance in maintaining our continually increasing consumption. And yet, though Christ promised that God would feed us, he never promised that God would stuff us to bursting. [Joy Davidman (Mrs. C.S. Lewis)].
Most of us would love to have the pious traits displayed by revered heroes and saints of the past. We sympathize with their causes and admire their sacrifices. However, our comforts and affluence have us wallowing in state-of-the-art conveniences, rarely noticing social ills and injustices — even during Lent. The culturally refined intellect clothing our sentiments persuades our heart to take the well-paved path and avoid muddying our shoes.
Theirs is an endless road, a hopeless maze, who seek for goods before they seek for God. [St. Bernard of Clairvaux].
We succumb to logical explanations for pursuing comforts and ease, then settle into the undemanding lifestyles of popular culture. Our shallow laughter brushes away problems with evasive pretensions at enjoying life. Our transient integrity shuffles between rivalry in public approval and personal displays of worldly increases.
I find it interesting that the meanest life, the poorest existence, is attributed to God’s will, but as human beings become more affluent, as their living standard and style begin to ascend the material scale, God descends the scale of responsibility at a commensurate speed. [Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, p. 18].
Thoughts and intentions initially formulated for observing Lent may be meritorious, but immersion in affluence can produce disappointing, even regrettable results. It is difficult to refrain from eating and drinking at a social gathering, to feel charitable at a sporting event, or to remember God in a restaurant or bar.
By contrast, the inspiration of a place of worship, or the reading of Scriptures in a quiet room, or even the star-filled sky can produce totally different states.
We are told: It is no big deal to eat non-Lenten food during Lent. It is no big deal if you wear expensive beautiful outfits, go to the theater, to parties, to masquerade balls, use beautiful expensive china, furniture, expensive carriages and dashing steeds, amass and hoard things, etc. . . . How after this can one say that it does not matter whether you eat non-Lenten food during Lent? The fact that we talk this way is in fact pride, idle thought, disobedience, refusal to submit to God, and separation from Him. [St. John of Kronstadt].
Modern customs do not offer many occasions to bypass our work schedules or daily routines. Interruption of our secular lifestyles, even for a day requires much planning and effort.
Prayer, mercy and fasting: These three are one, and they give life to each other. Fasting is the soul of prayer; mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. Let no one try to separate them; they cannot be separated. If you have only one of them or not all together, you have nothing.
So if you pray, fast; if fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. When you fast, see the fasting of others. If you hope for mercy, show mercy. If you look for kindness, show kindness. If you want to receive, give. [St. Peter Chrysologus].
Your Place in the World
Every secular thought inspired by affluence and prosperity is potentially a distraction from remembrance of God. Such beguiling thoughts can group themselves into a pervading attitude that harbors arrogance and produces self-love.
Prosperity knits a man to the World. He feels that is “finding his place in it,” while really it is finding its place in him. [C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters]
When fully armed, affluence marches proudly into our innermost self, taking control of our values and affirmations. Then, the capricious rule of consumerism diverts us far from the right path, and far from the traditions of Lent.
Daniel abstained at first from the luxuries of the court to escape being tampered with … We know how far enticements prevail to deceive us; especially when we are treated daintily; and experience shows us how difficult it is to be moderate when all is affluence around us, for luxury follows immediately on plenty. Such conduct is, indeed, too common, and the virtue of abstinence is rarely exercised when there is an abundance of provisions. [John Calvin, Commentary on Daniel 1:8]
Hunger for God
For the prosperous individual in an affluent society, reinforcements of spiritual affirmations have become increasingly rare. Devotional celebrations are seen today as remnants of old, archaic customs, irrelevant to modern times. Few would argue that Lent today retains the spiritual prominence it held for past generations.
The faithful practice of fasting contributes, moreover, to conferring unity to the whole person, body and soul, helping to avoid sin and grow in intimacy with the Lord … Through fasting and praying, we allow Him to come and satisfy the deepest hunger that we experience in the depths of our being: the hunger and thirst for God. [Pope Benedict XVI].
Affluence can dampen our spiritual devotions. As we prosper financially, our worries grow, our time vanishes, and our willpower slouches. No time for piety.
Questioned about his position on wealth, Francis insisted that “the Gospel condemns the cult of wellbeing,” and emphasized that at the Final Judgment “our closeness to poverty” is what will count. “Poverty keeps idolatry far away, and opens the door to Providence.” [Vatican Insider (La Stampa) 03/05/2014].
Nevertheless, it was the faith of early Christians that cultivated this sacred season as a time of penance. Today, Lent still provides opportunities to reestablish personal moments of penance. If it does not, on whom falls the blame?
YOU ARE OBSESSED by greed for more and more until you go down to your graves. Nay, in time you will come to understand! And once again: Nay, in time you will come to understand! Nay, if you could but understand [it] with an understanding [born] of certainty, you would indeed, most surely, behold the blazing fire [of hell]! In the end you will indeed, most surely, behold it with the eye of certainty: and on that Day you will most surely be called to account for [what you did with] the boon of life! [Quran 103:1-8].