Daily Thought For March 12, 2019
One Lesson of Lent: God Alone Is Enough
Lenten seasons long ago, my parents taught us to recognize that many things we considered essential to daily life — especial
ly favorite foods and entertainments — were, in fact, secondary and that we could live without them with just a little effort. I often groaned in compliance with Lent's penances. But even though their full meaning escaped me in those days, they made a lasting impression. I knew Lent was important. I knew God was important.
I once had a parishioner who was not in the habit of going to Sunday Mass. His wife and I good-naturedly chided him about his Sunday obligation, but he knew we were serious. He makes special effort from time to time, but inevitably he slides off track again. One Lent, however, he resolved to start going to Mass every Sunday without fail. He sent me this email message:
"Bishop Sartain, as my Lenten resolution, I decided to start going to Mass every Sunday. But the other day, my wife told me that the Sundays of Lent are not days of penance. Does that mean I should not go to Mass?"
Nice try, I wrote him. An obligation is an obligation. My friend was kidding, of course, but his humor does offer insight into the purpose of Lenten sacrifices and resolutions. Why do we fast, abstain, and make sacrifices during Lent? There are a variety of reasons.
The first and most important reason is this: God alone is enough. This insight dawned on me only gradually as I grew older, started paying attention to my relationship with God, and realized that I literally would not survive without him. I learned that God is not a lifeline to be used as a last resort; he is, in fact, everything, whether things are going well or badly. One reason we fast and abstain and make sacrifices in Lent — in other words, one reason we "do without" — is so that we can focus on the One we cannot do without.
If we truly want to focus on God, it is helpful and even necessary to peel away layers of comfort and excess to arrive at the kernel of life. It is easy to delude ourselves into thinking that we need many things and forget that, as Jesus told Martha, "There is need of only one thing" (Lk 10:42). Lent's fasting, abstinence, and sacrifices remind us to place our focus there.
"Obligation" is a concept not always appreciated in our culture. We have an obligation to participate in Mass every Sunday and holy day of obligation, an obligation to receive holy Communion at least during the Easter season, and an obligation to confess our grave sins at least once each year. These are three of the Precepts of the Church.
Obligation is not a dirty word. In fact, these obligations ensure that we avail ourselves of the great blessings of the Church — the Eucharist and God's loving mercy. Why would one not want to fulfill such "obligations" when they point us in the direction of the one thing necessary, the direction of the One without whom we cannot live?
We owe God the fulfillment of religious obligations, in grateful response for what he has done for us. They are truly the least we could do.
There is another, more subtle benefit to the sacrifices and penances of Lent: They help us grow in trust. Perhaps that sounds strange. But when we take such tangible steps to say to ourselves, "I cannot live without God," we see unmistakably that he supplies all our needs and is worthy of our trust. It is good for us to expose the excesses we have come to regard as necessities, because doing so unveils the only One who is a necessity. We understand that it has not been creature comforts that have sustained us through life, but God. God alone.
The obligations to which we are subject as Catholics are not ends in themselves. The true objective is for the observing of them to become so natural in us that it would never occur to us not to observe them. When obligations "disappear" in that way, we begin to understand that the very air we breathe comes from God.
In the sixteenth century, St. Teresa of Avila once jotted some verses in her breviary, which were translated from the Spanish in the nineteenth century by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:
Let nothing disturb thee, Nothing affright thee All things are passing; God never changeth; Patient endurance Attaineth to all things; Who God possesseth In nothing is wanting; Alone God sufficeth.Thank God for Lent, for penance, for abstinence from meat, for fasting, for sacrifices, for obligations. Without them we might drown in the delusion that we need many things. Alone God sufficeth.
from A Lenten Pilgrimage — Journeying with Jesus by Archbishop J. Peter Sartain pp.23-25