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Lent. I understand that the root of this word comes from the Old English meaning “to lengthen.” This season reflects the lengthening of days as the world shifts and the sun slowly moves toward full spring. I can sense my own soul bending toward the light.
Fasting and penance are ways to help me to wake up to the way I engage in automatic living that hurts my soul. It shakes me out of my slumber and sleep walking through life. I have to say that I’m not crazy about fasting. I have just a simple practice that keeps me from that unconscious reach for sugar. But it helps me to ask questions about bigger issues, such as how am I consuming news, electronic media, online shopping for little “luxuries” and its effect on our common home, Planet Earth. Fasting also connects me to the forced fasting of some of my neighbors here in Over-the-Rhine who are homeless and/or mentally ill.
I’m most moved by the phrase that Fr. Thomas Keating used for repentance: “Change the direction that you’re looking for happiness.” By slowing down my reading of Scripture during prayer time, by giving a few extra minutes of prayer, I begin to unhook from the Velcro of my own desires for reputation, control, security. These three areas are the very temptations that Christ was faced with in the desert and are part of the human condition. Our egos are never satisfied in these basic arenas. Ego, or false self, always grasps, looks to control, to own. When I’m loosened a bit, through a simple centering “sit” of 20 minutes of surrender, there’s a bit more freedom, creativity and compassion that develops.
Our spiritual father St. Francis called these three temptations the desire to own. Our Franciscan vow is not actually poverty, but rather, “living without anything of my own” or sine proprio. It’s a different direction to look for happiness, but one that led St. Francis to a life of joy, even when he had to let go of the direction he thought the Order should move. The classic story of perfect joy goes right to the bitterness of letting go of these three common temptations, which we knew that Francis also experienced. But that story also highlights the joy and peace that surrender can bring.
So, my hope for this Lent is for my soul to turn toward more of the light in this one precious life. In its simple remedies of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, Lent gives me another opportunity to choose joy and allow God to take over my life in every detail.
(Fr. Mark Soehner is the Provincial Minister of the Province of St. John the Baptist.)