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Lenten self-denial - at the very heart of our lives with Christ
There are variations on this little tale, but the message is common to all - and very clear to us. It's about the priest, new to a rural area, visiting some local farms. One property in particular impressed him - everything about it seemed first rate - the animals, the crops, the fences, the buildings, the tidy home paddock. He remarked to the farmer how much God had blessed him with such a beautiful property.
The farmer was amused, but generous. "Oh", he said, "we're grateful - very grateful, Father, but we've been here 24 years. You should have seen it when God had it all to Himself."
Our lives are rather like this. Each of us has the gift of life from God, and what we are is a reflection of what we have done and are doing with this gift.
There is no better time for taking stock of our lives than during Lent, beginning with a practical, attainable plan for our Lenten penance - and continuing with a review of our attitude to the whole subject of penance, or mortification, or "doing something for Lent", and why.
Yet self-denial, while never popular, seems at least to some to be in almost total eclipse; how often have we heard it described as old-fashioned?
I listened to a talk recently given by someone who should have known better, and heard that the Church had become "introspective" and its teaching on penance "negative and unacceptable to the modern mind."
Just how this fits in with Christ's own words about his followers practising self-denial - "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me" (Lk 9:23) - was not explained.
Just as self-sacrifice was part of Christ's life, so it must be part of ours, and the Church has always taught this. There's nothing new about it being unpopular. Every age has produced efforts to establish a closeness with Our Lord, without too much personal discomfort. Just as Easter celebrates the Resurrection, with every Sunday a "little Easter", so Lent celebrates the ideal of following Christ in a spirit of self-giving, with every Friday during the year becoming a little Lent.
Having long abandoned the no-meat-on-Fridays precept, the Church calls on us to nominate our own acts of self-denial. Our resolution should be specific, attainable, and if possible to the benefit of others.
Coming back to "modern" people's objection to self-sacrifice, while this may apply to Lenten penance, in many other ways modern people do practise self-denial, and take it very seriously.
We pass over tempting food just to lose weight, adhere to boring diets for serious reasons - and what about the agonising training, gym work, push-ups, jogging, etc, dedicated athletes undertake? We are willing to impose the most restrictive and demanding lifestyles on ourselves in the pursuit of something, or some goal, we value.
That's what it is all about - what we value, and our motivation. As Goethe said, it's not strength we lack, it's will.
Most people would agree that the best form of Lenten penance is one which means self-denial for us and which, at the same time benefits others, preferably the less well off.
I believe it is important not just to practise this, but also to teach its two-dimensional nature to children. Acts of self-denial are virtuous, but they don't necessarily help others. And helping others may not involve much self-denial.
A rich person may donate without hurting, and children, sponsored in a walkathon raise money for the needy; but the self-sacrifice is transferred to their sponsors.
Our age is focused on self so that we find ourselves surrounded by powerful influences which reinforce this. TV, films and advertising scoff at the idea of anything but success, pleasure and winning. Our Lord's call to follow Him is drowned out by a persistent and worldly commercialism. We can overcome this by making a prayer of any hardship, pain or discomfort - an effort which will make us stronger.
Just as when the farmer applied himself, worked hard, walked the extra mile, the results showed in his fine property. As he pointed out, he had begun 24 years earlier with no more than an opportunity and potential - something we all have. Using his gifts, working hard with, no doubt, plenty of self-denial, he produced the farm the priest so admired.
Our future as members of Christ's Body, and the future of all charities and the health of all parishes depend on our acceptance of a spirit of self-sacrifice and self-giving. It's time to revisit Luke 9:23. What we read there is not an optional extra - it's at the very heart of our lives with Christ.
Fr F. E. Burns PE is a retired priest of the Melbourne Archdiocese.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 16 No 2 (March 2003), p. 20
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