The world is scandalized by many aspects of the Christian religion, foremost among them being the crucifixion of our Lord Jesus. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said, following the example of St. Paul:
“The Cross, for all it represents, hence also for the theological message it contains, is scandal and folly.”
To nonbelievers, it makes no sense that Christians would also pick up their own crosses to follow their Savior. This is a sure reason why Ash Wednesday and Fridays throughout Lent elicit strange responses from non-believers. We’re asked why we would ever give up meat and put some dark smudge on our forehead. We’re asked what good could possibly come from denying ourselves some simple creature comfort. But since we Christians are not of the world, only merely living within it, our example of self-denial and sacrifice is oftentimes downright disturbing to those who are still of the world and wrapped up in its ways. Pope Benedict continues, directly quoting St. Paul:
“The Apostle says so with an impressive force that it is good to hear directly from his words: ‘for the word of the Cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles’ (1 Cor 1: 18-23)…
“The ‘stumbling block’ and ‘folly’ of the Cross lie in the very fact that where there seems to be nothing but failure, sorrow and defeat, there is the full power of God’s boundless love, for the Cross is an expression of love and love is the true power that is revealed precisely in this seeming weakness.”
This is precisely what the uninitiated cannot understand about the Cross. Those that have eyes to see will perceive the “boundless love” that is expressed in the Cross. But when the uninitiated do see us happy, joyful, and healthier for taking on penitential practices and sacrifices, much as our Lord did, most will want to know the reason that we are joyful, and this becomes a great moment for evangelization. So what are some of these ways that allow us to concretely set ourselves apart from the world, thereby giving not only a witness to the love revealed by the Cross, but also allowing us as individuals to come closer to our Lord Jesus in a much deeper way?
The Exodus 90 Brotherhood
From my own experience, I’m currently undergoing Exodus 90, which is a series of spiritual exercises for men encouraging a fraternity of brothers to take a ninety day spiritual journey through prayer and asceticism. That word, “asceticism”, is not in common parlance within the popular culture, but it is a fundamental building block of all Christian practice, following the model of our Lord Jesus’ walk to Calvary, not to mention his own journey into the desert. Asceticism is a practice of self-denial for the sake of the Kingdom, for the sake of our own sanctification and for that of others as well. If you’ve ever given up something for Lent, you are already well acquainted with this practice! However, American Catholics as a whole—and many Catholics in other developed nations—must regain a much fuller sense of the ascetic lifestyle in a culture that has become overly indulgent and pleasure-driven. So that prompts the question: how can we regain the ascetic practices natural to the Christian life?
My Exodus 90 brothers and I began our Lenten journey on January 13. We’ve been called to incorporate many different ascetic practices into our lives, as well as adding more prayer time and other activities that will be beneficial to our health, such as more consistent sleep. Who would’ve thought that’d be a difficulty! But in our non-stop culture, getting to be “on-time” has certainly been a challenge, and it’s one to be welcomed.
In any case, I’d like to make five suggestions to challenge each of you during your Lenten journey. But let’s get a little more hardcore. Whereas we have the old standby of giving up sweets, let’s bump things up a notch and really challenge ourselves to make Lent 2020 the most fruitful Lent of our lives! Maybe you can incorporate one, a few, or all of these challenges into your Lenten disciplines this year, but whatever you choose to do, know that our Lord is walking with you as you take up each cross. Not only can you offer up these disciplines for your own spiritual benefit, but also for your other loved ones both here on earth or in purgatory. Without further delay, let’s begin.
Challenge #1: Abstain More
Instead of abstaining from meat every Friday, abstain every Friday and Wednesday of Lent.
We all know that the Church requires all healthy adults to abstain from meat every Friday in Lent (and we are also required to do so on all Fridays throughout the year, with the permission to substitute meat for another penance), but this directive is of course the bare minimum. For example, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we are reminded that the Precepts of the Church constitute “the indispensable minimum in the spirit of prayer and moral effort, in the growth in love of God and neighbor” (CCC 2041). It can be said that in the same way, the Lenten obligations of fasting and abstinence are the bare minimum of what we should be doing during Lent.
Think of it this way. One of the Precepts of the Church is that we must “humbly receive [our] Creator in Holy Communion at least during the Easter season” (CCC 2042). Could you imagine how much grace we’d be missing out on if we followed only the bare minimum of receiving our Lord Jesus in the Eucharist one single time during the season of Easter? Likewise, we should endeavor to do more than just the basic abstinence regulations the Church gives us this Lenten season, and at least abstain from meat on one extra day such as a Wednesday. Not to mention, we have nothing on Byzantine Catholics, who are typically much more serious in their Lenten disciplines than we have become as Latin Catholics in the last several decades.
Challenge #2: Fast More
Instead of just fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, also additionally fast at least on all Fridays of Lent.
This might sound similar to the first challenge, but recall the words of our Lord in the Gospel. First, he tells us:
“When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:17-18).
Secondly, he later mentions that a certain kind of demon “never comes out except by prayer and fasting” (Matthew 17:21). We can see clearly here that fasting is so important, that our Lord reminds the apostles of “when” they fast as opposed to “if” they fast. For a disciple of Christ, fasting is a given, and is capable of effecting great moments of healing when coupled with intense prayer, as with the epileptic boy in Matthew 17:14-21. This is why we would do well to engage in more than just two days of fasting throughout the year. The words of Pope Clement XIII on the spiritual advantages of fasting are appropriate to consider as we discern when and how often to fast:
“The Catholic Church has always preserved it so that by the mortification of the flesh and the humiliation of the spirit, we might be better prepared to approach the mysteries of the Lord’s passion and the paschal sacraments. Likewise through fasting we might rise again in the resurrection of Him whose passion and death we joined after we put off the old man.”Appetente Sacro, 1
Challenge #3: Less Screen Time
Instead of giving up a favorite TV program, give up all unnecessary computer and mobile device time.
This is one of the more talked about components within the Exodus 90 experience. In the past, I’ve perhaps given up a TV show, or even certain times of the day where I was most prone to sit in front of the screen, but we can take that a step further. All screens, whether that’s the TV, desktop computer or phone, should be used only for essential tasks such as work, bills, and such. The time spent away from our devices will open our hearts up more to those directly in front of us. That includes our family members, spouses, children, and anyone else with whom we might have relationships. Admittedly, this has been difficult for me to accomplish, but the fruit has been tangible in me not being so caught up in the affairs of the world, and in politics both secular and within the Church, which is allowing me to devote time to more reading, studying and reflection.
Challenge #4: Go to Mass More
Instead of adding just more time for private prayer, add another Mass to your weekly schedule
Typically during Lent, we hear the saying that instead of “giving something up” we should add something to our daily routine. This is well and good, however, this always needs to be done in tandem with the practices of asceticism talked about above. But if we are looking to add to our spiritual practices, probably our first go-to would be more spiritual reading, or more time in prayer within our rooms in secret where our heavenly Father also sees us in secret. But as Catholic Christians, we are also called to community, and there is no greater place to be gathered than within a church for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Indeed, there is no greater prayer that any Christian could pray than the Mass!
As the Catechism tells us:
“The Eucharist is ‘the source and summit of the Christian life’. ‘The other sacraments, and indeed all ecclesiastical ministries and works of the apostolate, are bound up with the Eucharist and are oriented toward it.’”CCC 1324
We are all obligated to participate in Mass each Sunday and Holy Day, but what can we do to work in at least one extra Mass each week? To be able to have the opportunity to receive our Lord Jesus in daily Communion is a great gift, and by uniting our hearts to the sacrifice of the altar, we join in the unending hymn of praise which resounds throughout heaven. It might be inconvenient for our schedules to make room for at least one extra Mass a week, but the benefits of doing so will be of inestimable value.
Challenge #5: Cold Showers
Instead of living comfortably as we do in the West, take cold showers during Lent.
This is probably what people think of most when it comes to Exodus 90, but after doing this for over a period of forty days now, I can say this is something even those outside of the challenge can profit from. Again, this goes back to the call of asceticism, and becomes a great way to offer up little sufferings. When we do so willingly, we can make reparation for our own sins and for the sins of others, as Our Lady of Fatima asked, for instance. Consider the words of St. John Vianney on this topic:
“Whether we will or not, we must suffer. There are some who suffer like the good thief, and others like the bad thief. They both suffered equally. But one knew how to make his sufferings meritorious, he accepted them in the spirit of reparation … ”
We can do the same with small little sufferings like this, offering it up in reparation for the wrongs we’ve committed, or for the sanctification of our families and for their growth in virtue. My brothers in our Exodus 90 fraternity have been great in building all of us up as we take this journey. Often, we remind ourselves that we really have it easy here in the West. While many people might recoil at the idea of a cold shower first thing in the morning, it’s such a small penance, and unites our tiny suffering to the suffering our Lord Jesus took on for us on the Cross. In light of that, I want to share something one of my brothers wrote a couple of weeks ago regarding this particular challenge:
“It’s -6° outside and the water from the pipes outside are about to flow through my shower head onto my skin. Jesus prepared Himself in the garden for His trial and sweat blood. I am taking a few deep breaths and will laugh at my comparatively pathetic ascetic offering. God speed on your fast today gents.”
Everything mentioned in these five challenges above is nothing compared to what our Lord did for us. But as St. John Vianney said, these sufferings do have much merit. As St. Paul said:
“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church.”Colossians 1:24
What could possibly be lacking in Christ’s afflictions? Our own! The Catholic Edition of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible has an important footnote on this mention of “lacking” for us:
“Christ’s sufferings were, of course, sufficient for our redemption, but all of us may add ours to his, in order that the fruits of his redemption be applied to the souls of men.”
That’s what Lent is all about. We unite our sufferings to his, “for the sake of his body”, which is the Church that we are members of. So again, let’s make Lent 2020 something special. Let’s push ourselves so that we may build up the Church with our ascetic practices and increased prayer. And then when that glorious feast of Easter arrives, we’ll be better prepared to rise in union with our triumphant Lord.
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Nicholas LaBanca is a cradle Catholic and hopes to give a unique perspective on living life in the Catholic Church as a millennial. His favorite saints include his patron St. Nicholas, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Mary Vianney, and St. Athanasius of Alexandria.