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What are you doing for Lent?

What are you giving up for Lent? This was the question one often heard back in the day, as they say. Parents would ask it of their children, and a spiritual director might ask you The assumption was that one gave up something during Lentcandy or cookies when we were children; smoking or whiskey when we were adults. I even heard of couples who gave up marital sex for these forty days. This was over and above the official rules for Lent: Only one full meal a day, the other two meals not being allowed together to make a full meal. Meat only once a day. No eating between meals. Sundays, of course, were excepted.The celebration of Lent, in no small part because there were official rules, was a communal thing. (The "womens magazines"Womens Day and Family Circlewould have cover stories about creative ways to cook fishclearly aimed at the tens of thousands of Catholics who would be observing the Lenten discipline.) I suppose the emphasis was negativewhat are you giving up?but we were also urged to more positive thingsattendance at daily Mass went up significantly during Lent, as well as participation in popular devotions, especially the Stations of the Cross. I dont remember much about the third elementalmsgiving, service of the poor.Then, after Vatican II, came the relaxation of the Lenten rules. I remember as a young priest telling the people that the Church would no longer be treating them as children, telling them what they had to do for Lent, but would leave it up to their decision what they would do. This greatly oversimplified things, I have long since recognized. I wonder if something wasnt lost by our in effect doing away with any communal obligations, that is, things that we all did (or didnt do) together. Does Lent still have the communal religious significance that, say, Ramadan has for Muslims, or Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for Jews? Should it have it?

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If lines mean anything, Ash Wednesday still means something for Catholics, and everyone else who shows up! Joe, what would you advise the ready, willing, and able Catholic about Lenten practices?

Peggy: A friend of mine, a German theologian, happened to be in New York on Ash Wednesday a few years back. He was astounded to see St. Patrick's Cathedral filled with people, and even more astonished to learn that this was only one of several Masses during the day, most of them equally well attended. So there is still something to that day--whatever significance is assigned to receiving the ashes. That definitely remains a communal event! By the way, I still prefer the old formula: "Memento, homo, quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris"--"Remember, man, that you are dust and unto dust you shall return." The newer formula, I believe, is: "Repent and believe the Gospel." Let me think about your question. Other comments welcome, of course. I'd be particularly interested in communal dimensions of Lent today.

There are (at least) a couple of Desert Fathers stories that suggest that the spiritually simpler way to fast is by doing what everyone else does, not because it's a "law" or even a rule, but because fasting as a group leaves less room for pride. (It also makes family shopping easier.)There's a story I can't find online in which a monk fasts to everyone's amazement in the refectory, but when the abbot orders him to take his meals in private, in his cell, the monk becomes ravenously hungry. The abbot tells him that in the refectory, he could fast because he was feasting on the attention of the brothers.Here's another:A brother questioned Abba Motius, saying, "If I go to dwell somewhere, how do you want me to live?" The old man said to him, "If you go live somewhere, do not seek to be known for anything special; do not say, for example, I do not go to the synaxis; or perhaps, I do not eat at the agape. For these things make an empty reputation and later you will be troubled because of this. For men rush where they find these practices." The brother said to him, "What should I do, then?" The old man said, "Wherever you live, follow the same manner of life as everyone else, and if you see devout men whom you trust doing something, do the same thing and you will be at peace. For this is humility: to see yourself to be the same as the rest. When men see you do not go beyond the limits, they will consider you to be no different than anyone else, and no one will trouble you."

Early in Robert Barron's book, The Strangest Way, he contrasts the experiential impact conveyed by the observance of Ramadan in a predominantly Muslim city with the experience of Lent in Chicago. For a faith, like Catholicism, that touts its "sacramentality," Lent seems to stay pretty much under wraps. Save for one day.I often remark that, though Ash Wednesday is not a "holy day of obligation," the vox populi has made it a holy day ... and that is all to the good. But I also wonder, what about the day after, and the day after?One of the major themes of Barron's book (a book that is required for my undergraduate class, and which, invariably, they find a high point of the semester) is the importance of "practices" for religious faith. Not only does he stress their importance, he explains practices like prayer and fasting, alms-giving and eucharistic adoration, to young people for whom some of these practices are literally revelations.So concrete Lenten practices: Mass, not only on Ash Wednesday, but all Wednesdays and/or Fridays of Lent? Doubling of alms-giving of whatever sort (gas prices have doubled since last Lent!)? Donating blood to the Red Cross -- a wonderful Holy Week custom among some? Praying the rosary on the subway or reading the Scriptures? Identifiable religious garb (I can always tell when some priests are slated to appear on TV :-)?A blessed Lent. Oremus pro invicem!

As a family, we try to take stock of things we can do without (or reuse and recycle). There's a moratorium on buying stuff in Lent. My personal discipline is to take a vow of cyber-silence--much harder for me than fasting.

Jean, I hope you will make an exception for dotCommonweal--otherwise, you'll be imposing an additional Lenten obligation on the rest of us!

As a child of today's consumerist culture, I am giving up the self-righteous hypocrisy of pretending I can give up anything at all. Pass me another helping of dessert, please!

"Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them"How come Lent seems to be about disobeying the gospel reading for Ash Wednesday? Apparently crowds go to Church to hear Jesus say we should not draw attention to ourselves -- no sackcloth and ashes -- and to get ashes rubbed on their forehead to draw attention to themselves?Whatever is being done in terms of prayer, fasting and almsgiving is supposed to be invisible, according to Jesus. So if it looks like no one is doing anything on the day after Ash Wednesday, that is just how it is supposed to be. And if it looks like people are fasting or praying more or giving more, they are not really into the spirit of the season.Or are they? I have long been confused about this.

Eamon Duffy has a marvelous chapter on this in his book "Faith of our Fathers" , not on Lenten fasting in particular, but on the Friday abstinence, which I think is pertinent - because he focuses on the value of the Friday abstinence/penance as something we, as God's people do as a witness to the world and, in a sense, for the sake of the world. There's a shortened version of the chapter here:http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=167"Catholics shared that rhythm with most of the worlds great religious traditions, a fact which ought to have suggested that there was something essential about fasting not only for our specific identities as Catholic Christians, but as religious beingshuman beings. But since 1967 what was once a truly corporate observance, reminding us of the passion of Christ, of our own spiritual poverty and, even more concretely, of the material poverty of most of the human race, reminding us what it was like to be hungry, has become another individual consumer choice, like going on a diet. Though we pay liturgical lip-service to the old dialectic, and still nominally observe Lent, in practice all our time now has become ordinary time, and there is nothing in this respect to distinguish Catholics from anyone else. Yet religious communities depend on the differentiation provided by such shared observances to sustain their identities. The long and noble pilgrimage of Israel through a multitude of cultures and times, without a temple, without a priesthood, has been possible, at least in part, because of the unifying and sustaining effect of their dietary laws. The Jews knew who they were because of what they did and did not eat. Christian fasting and abstinence did not, of course, spring from a ritual distinction between clean and unclean meats, but it was just as deeply embedded in theological conviction as the older dispensation. Its abandonment was not therefore a simple change in devotional habit, but the signal of a radical discontinuity in the tradition and a decisive shift in theological perception."I think the framework for connecting individual Lenten penitenial practices to a more communal sense of "this is what we, the People of God as a sign of our love" is there. It's up to preachers and catechists to help make that connection.But then I live in the land of the ubiquitous, every Friday, "St. X's All You Can Eat Lenten Fish Fry" so I'm really not as optimistic about the possibility as I may sound....

For a number of years here, Lent was marked by weekly ecumenical soup supper, with bread and soup and converstation, then discussion led by various leaders of the different religious communities, and, finally, even song together.With our JPII pastor, this has slipped away, I guess promoting "robust Catholic identity." We're featuring a marian novena with a plenary indulgence.I think Lent is esentially about recognizing our weaknesses in drawing closer to Christ's essential Mystery of Faith celebrated the last three days - not about "giving up" something.In the current situation here, I'm not sure other than the Eucharist that I will do.

The individualization of Lenten practices, and even more, the loss of Friday abstinence and the observance of Sunday as set apart, is reflected in the attitude people have toward liturgy, and toward spiritual practices in general. I think it is unfortunate that spirituality has been changed to "what's good for me?" to the detriment of "what does it say about us?" I don't remember pre-1967 well, and maybe there was too much emphasis on the communal rules and not enough on individual choice, but it saddens me that our public identity as Catholics is reduced to one day -- Ash Wednesday. When I first read this article, my thoughts went immediately to the ability of the Jews to maintain their identity in diaspora largely through dietary and Sabbath regulations, so I was glad to see the related comment above. Most of the custodians at our parish are Muslim, and their observance of prayer times and holy days is, I believe, a sign of what we've given up.I don't know if we can go back -- it can't be with threats. How can you say "It's a sin to eat meat on Friday -- except it wasn't between 1967 and 20xx?" I think the Ash Wednesday crowds show us that people are hungry for an identity as spiritual persons. How can we use that to make it happen?

I think many people who try to do something more personal (individual or family) also participate in the Friday Stations, Lenten study programs, etc. I think Lent is a time for both individual and communal penitence--they don't have to be mutually exclusive.

Pray more often. Ten, fifteen, twenty minutes a day in quiet thanksgiving. Karl Rahner: We give God the scraps of our day. Give Him some quality-time.Practice wonder: be alert. The very old adage was: Live every day as if it were your last. Try this one, also very old, I think: Live every day as if it were your first. Imagine yourself as Adam or Eve on their first day. Practice wonder.Consider whether your Christianity is free, or is it reluctant, grudging? Whats crippling you? Work at that.Learn more about the faith; read a good book or two.Fast from television.Give more time to your family, your spouse, your children, your parents.Be in touch with people. Who needs to hear from you? Who doesnt but would love to hear from you? Write letters. Call people on the telephone. Visit the sick, the alone. Try to mend that broken relationship.Forgive.Ask for forgiveness, and not just from God.Volunteer.Go through your closets and give away clothes you dont need. Peter Maurin: that extra coat in your closet belongs on the back of a homeless person.Reflect on Jesus words that some evils can only be exorcized by prayer and fasting. Pray and fast.

Participation in "Operation Rice Bowl", brought to you by Catholic Relief Services, has been a Lenten tradition for me since I was in second grade. http://orb.crs.org/

For anyone around a Fordham campus on Ash Wednesday, there are many opportunities to be ashed. Something about ashes, I guess. None of the athletic events advertised seem to include ashes, but who knows?Ash Wednesday Mass Ashes will be distributed during Mass. 8:30 a.m. | University Church, Rose Hill campusAsh Wednesday MassAshes will be distributed during Mass. 8:30 a.m. | Blessed Rupert Mayer, S.J., Chapel, Lowenstein Center, Lincoln Center campusService of AshesThere is no Mass during this service.11:15 a.m. | 7th Floor Conference Room, 888 7th Ave. (Fordham Office of Development and University Relations)Ash Wednesday MassAshes will be distributed during Mass. 12:15 p.m. | Blessed Rupert Mayer, S.J., Chapel, Lowenstein Center, Lincoln Center campusAsh Wednesday MassAshes will be distributed during Mass. 12:30 p.m. | University Church, Rose Hill campusInterfaith Ash ServiceAshes will be distributed during this interfaith service.12:30 p.m. | Dealy Chapel, Rose Hill campusAsh Wednesday MassAshes will be distributed during Mass. 12:45 p.m. | Butler Hall, Westchester campusService of AshesThere is no Mass during this service.2:30 p.m. | Blessed Rupert Mayer, S.J., Chapel, Lowenstein Center, Lincoln Center campusAsh Wednesday MassAshes will be distributed during Mass. 5 p.m. | Butler Hall, Westchester campusAsh Wednesday MassAshes will be distributed during Mass. 5:15 p.m. | University Church, Rose Hill campusAsh Wednesday MassAshes will be distributed during Mass. 5:15 p.m. | Blessed Rupert Mayer, S.J., Chapel, Lowenstein Center, Lincoln Center campusAsh Wednesday MassAshes will be distributed during Mass. 9 p.m. | University Church, Rose Hill campusAsh Wednesday MassAshes will be distributed during Mass. 9:30 p.m. | Suite 6G, McMahon Hall, Lincoln Center campus

I am scandalized that no one mentioned that there was no celebrated feast of St. Blaise this year because it fell on a Sunday so we got a general blessing instead of the individual throat blessing.Ash Wednesday is an annual tradition the way Christmas Mass is for many. Getting ashes is more important than anything else. "Where are your ashes" could be just as disturbing as where is your tie, your wedding ring or the like. It is one of the most visible signs but other than that. I do like Joe K's list of things to reinforce during Lent. I want to be with any community who exhibits those acts.

I can't hear the word scandalized without thinking of this performance by Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle singing Scandalize My Name:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I4ZktluC0Mg

Though some clergy (I'm not talking about anyone here) look upon Ash Wednesday as a mission to the unwashed (a little like the people who only occupy a pew at Christmas), I am always impressed at the numbers who show up and the streetscape filled with people who have a black smudge on their forehead. Ashes are sacramentals, no. And they seem to retain the power of what they symbolize: Dust thou art and to dust thou shall return (repentent or not).

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About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.