The Good Thief? (A Lenten Reflection)
You’ve probably heard this one before: a priest was walking down the street when he was accosted by a thief who demanded his wallet. As the priest was reaching for the wallet, his coat fell open to reveal his collar.
The thief, startled, said “I’m sorry Father, I had no idea.”
The priest, shaken, reached for a pack of cigarettes and offered the thief one. But the thief shook his head and said “No thanks, Father. I’ve given up smoking for Lent.”
It’s a great joke and it encapsulates a certain critique of traditional Lenten practices that has filtered down into the consciousness of many ordinary Catholics. Every year, beginning with the Ash Wednesday gospel, we are warned against the emptiness of external gestures. It is conversion of the heart that matters. Fasting from meat is meaningless if we are not actively trying to feed the hungry. We’re told to pray, of course, but we’re also warned against saying rote prayers. We’re supposed to speak to God from the heart, in our own words.
This year for Lent, my parish is using a small-group, lectionary based program where the groups meet every week to reflect on the coming Sunday gospel. The idea is to help Catholics “talk about their faith,” because apparently we’re not very good at that sort of thing.
Now I don’t object, per se, to any of this. I believe in feeding the hungry. I love our small group, which has been meeting for years and is enjoying using these new materials. And Jesus was pretty clear in prioritizing internal conversion over the external gesture.
But taken as a whole, I’m finding that Lent has become pretty “left brain.” The part of my brain that thrives on symbol and ritual feels like its gasping for oxygen.
But perhaps even more fundamentally, I’m struggling with the extent to which Lent has become all about, well, me. I can fast (partially or completely), I can pray (using traditional prayers or my own words), I can “give something up” for Lent or “do something” for Lent instead. I can avail myself of any number of opportunities for “spiritual growth” during the season. It’s up to me and my choices.
I don’t deny that there is much that is of value in this. But what has been lost is the sense of Lent as a set of corporate practices that shape a pilgrim people waiting for Easter. It’s easy to laugh about the thief in the joke above. But his decision to “give something up” marked him as part of a community. However imperfectly he may have personally lived out his Catholicism, his decision to continue with the corporate penance testified to the power of Catholicism’s communal ethos. Have we lost that?
Okay readers, it’s your turn. Agree? Disagree? What’s your experience?