Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Loving Lent

“Charity covers a multitude of sins” (1Pt. 4:8).
Once when I was a postulant, we were trying to raise money for something. (Some things never change.) I had been in religious life all of about a year. Having witnessed and experienced my parents’ generosity, I decided to write and ask them to help out. With all the zeal of a neophyte, but less than half the sense, I did them the "honor" of scribbling those words to them. That such episodes never soured them testifies to their goodness and sense of humor, as well as pure parental indulgence. If I’ve acquired any grace under fire over the years, I got it from them.

This verse from the first letter of Peter is one of those Christian proverbs that goes way back to pre-Christian days, but spoke to the early Church as it prepared itself for the final coming of Christ. Of course, like many oft-repeated bits of popular wisdom taken out of context, it has been applied in one or two ways that cause listeners to stop dead in their tracks and wonder what they missed in ethics class.

"Be reconciled to God!" (2Cor. 5:20)
One thing it doesn’t mean is that if we indulge in less than virtuous living, all we have to do is toss a few bucks in the direction of the nearest non-profit for our slate to be wiped clean. Charity presumes at least an effort to change our ways or to mend fences with someone. Unfortunately, over the past several years, charity has become synonymous with philanthropy. When I was a middle-schooler I asked my mother if they were the same thing. She told me, “Not always. Philanthropists can give to people without loving God. You can’t do that if you give out of charity.” I got it. Love covers a multitude of sins.

Last week I picked up some ribbon at a local fabric store for a project. At the counter, I spotted some craft paper on sale, but since I hadn’t brought enough money for both, I put it back. The check-out clerk noticed and asked me if I was Catholic; turns out, he himself was not and hadn’t darkened the doorstep of a church in a while. No matter; he was chatty and not at all intimidated. He offered to buy the paper for me, and as he attempted to ring it up, the register refused to cooperate. After three attempts, the words slipped out: it was quite mild as profanity goes, but he rushed to apologize. “That’s OK,” I said, spinning the proverb, “everything’s forgiven with a full discount!” He laughed, then asked for prayers. “Anything in particular?” I ventured. He hesitated. “Oh, I can tell you,” he finally answered, his eyes filling. “I have HIV.”

You can’t say a whole lot in the check-out line, and it’s probably just as well. He managed to say that he was living with someone, then added, “I know the Catholic Church doesn’t approve….” “Well,” I answered, “I don’t agree with the lifestyle, but persons are important, and I pray for persons.” He invited me back and agreed to pray for me, too. Without minimizing the precariousness of their condition, I figure that even if people don’t pray for themselves, if they pray for me, they’re connecting with God. Then I leave it to God to work out the details.

Ash Wednesday 2011,
our Boston chapel

Ash Wednesday, with its prescription of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving as an antidote for our self-centeredness and self-righteousness, appeals to donors and beneficiaries both, to re-examine how we love. These practices are meant to hollow out within us a space for God and others, so we can more easily and clearly reset the priorities we opted for when we made our baptismal commitment to follow Christ. When we give, it’s not just because the IRS is looking over our shoulder or because we profit from the world’s esteem. When we receive, it’s without competition or a sense of entitlement. Love partners with repentance to help us recognize our interdependence and to reach out to others with respect and genuine compassion.

In his Lenten message this year, Pope Benedict XVI offers the image of Baptism and the Word of God from the Sunday readings as our reference points for celebrating this season. Love has been the underlying theme of his three enclyclicals. He picks up this thread in his reflections for Lent and guides us into opening ourselves to the charity proclaimed in the Gospel and first infused in us at Baptism for the forgiveness of sin.

Near the conclusion of his letter, Peter sums up his exhortation to love with practical advice on making charity feel at home in our lives: “To the extent that each of you has received a gift, use it to serve one another….so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ…” (1Pt. 4:10-11).

Pictured above, beginning at top: Jaymie Stuart Wolfe, PBM associate children's editor, Sr. Denise Cecilia Benjamin, FSP, marketing director, Anthony Ruggiero, acquisitions associate, Sr. M. Mark Wickenhiser, FSP, Rev. Joseph Mozer, Sr. Fay Josephine Pele, FSP.


  1. The distinction between charity and philanthropy is an excellent point. To borrow Ophelia's line, "Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind."

    To me, this lesson extends to all aspects of Lent. There is a temptation to think, "I'm going to skip this chocolate, this meat, this [insert what you gave up here] and I'm golden." We can get caught up in what we're doing and lose sight of why. If we don't stay focused on the deeper meaning behind the Lenten practices, our fasting, almsgiving - even our prayers - can seem more like we're trying to barter with God.

    Or as Joel might ask, are we rending our clothes or our hearts? (I love that reading on Ash Wednesday.)

  2. What strikes me most is the final line - the quote from 1 Peter, "To the extent that each of you has received a gift, use it to serve one another... so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ." It is a great reminder that ALL we have is gift from God. This leads to the lessons of humility, evangelization, and trust. First, we must realize with humility that anything we have to give was first given to us by God. Second, the best way to share those gifts is to bring the whole Jesus to others - evangelizing with words, deeds, and actions. Third, we cannot just give out of our excesses - true faith and trust in God comes in giving away the gifts God gives us so He can give us even more - He will not be outdone in generosity!

  3. Thank you both for your insights. It's not about tallying up Brownie points, is it? It's all about relationship--with Jesus and with each other.


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