Monday, February 07, 2005

Lent is Coming - What to Do?

The season of Lent is approaching. It is the time in the liturgical calendar in which we do 40 days of penance before Easter. Rebecca, at Doxology has a very nice post on this topic ( following her post on the Superbowl .... both are spiritual experiences, I guess) Scroll down to Not Having a Must Have World.

When I was a kid Lent was fraught with great significance and my Catholic friends and I used to have discussions about what we were going to give up as a spiritual penance. The trick was to find something you liked a lot, but could likely give up for 40 days without dying, or wimping out. The other option, less used but still viable, was to do something extra for 40 days. That might mean going to mass during the week or not bugging your siblings all the time. The selection was a tricky matter, as one could not be too ostentatious about the penance, upon risk losing all glory later in heaven and a lot of mocking from one's peers. Nor could it be so easy that no real effort was required. That way lay years of extra time in Purgatory (or so I speculated at the time).

When I was about nine years old I had just read an adult book about St. Francis of Assisi (1181 -1226 AD) which had a real impact on me, even though there were parts I only vaguely grasped. Saint Francis was a son of a prosperous cloth merchant who gave up his comfortable life, became a friar and embraced complete poverty as a way of serving Christ.
On a certain morning in 1208, probably 24 February, Francis was hearing Mass in the chapel of St. Mary of the Angels, near which he had then built himself a hut; the Gospel of the day told how the disciples of Christ were to possess neither gold nor silver, nor scrip for their journey, nor two coats, nor shoes, nor a staff, and that they were to exhort sinners to repentance and announce the Kingdom of God. Francis took these words as if spoken directly to himself, and so soon as Mass was over threw away the poor fragment left him of the world's goods, his shoes, cloak, pilgrim staff, and empty wallet. At last he had found his vocation. Having obtained a coarse woolen tunic of "beast colour", the dress then worn by the poorest Umbrian peasants, and tied it round him with a knotted rope, Francis went forth at once exhorting the people of the country-side to penance, brotherly love, and peace.
This was my answer; I had found my Lenten task and life vocation. That night as I lay in bed I vowed to follow St. Francis by eschewing all worldly comforts. I got out of my bed and lay on the cool wooden floor of my bedroom, basking in my Lenten zeal. Twenty, or thirty minutes later I found it impossible to find a comfortable position on the hard floor. My head hurt where it pressed into the wood. I surmised that a pillow would not seriously damage my spiritual quest. After all, I would still have no mattress, or blanket. It was a understandable theological compromise. One could not properly pray if completely distracted by jawbone pain. I grabbed my pillow.

Some time later I noticed that I was really quite cold. I offered up my freezing condition to God for the salvation of sinners and the souls in Purgatory. I was obviously on my way to sainthood. St. Francis of Assisi and St. John of Mad. My name would be linked to his down through the centuries as wonderful examples of Catholic sanctity. I grew colder. My discomfort increased. Perhaps a blanket would not be unreasonable. What good could I do the Church frozen to my bedroom floor? A blanket would be a mercy to others as it would clearly save my life and the life of a saint was not to be tossed away recklessly. Saints were wonderful conduits of God's grace. Besides I reckoned, suicide is not permitted to Catholics. I gently pulled a blanket from my bed.

For a while I was somewhat comfortable. But soon I noticed that, although I was reasonably warm, and my head was pleasantly nestled in my pillow, my back hurt like heck and my hip ached where it was being slowly crushed to pulp by the hardwood floor. My discomfort grew and grew. What was I to do? What would Saint Francis have done? In vain I searched my memory of the biography of Francis for guidance. I could not recall whether the good saint slept in a bed or not. If not, I guessed he must have had hay or straw, to prevent the crippling joint and spinal injuries, such I was clearly doomed to endure.

I recalled from a catechism class that one had to guard against spiritual pride, a tricky and spiritually debilitating condition. And here I was trying to outdo one of the greatest saints of the Holy Catholic Church, who must have slept on straw to have lived as long as he did. Despite that straw he was a spiritual giant. I was only nine year old boy about to lose the use of my limbs if something didn't happen soon to prevent the loss of circulation to my legs.

What purpose would being reduced to crutches for the rest of my life serve? Even crutches might be tolerable, and would certainly be a visible symbol of my sanctity, but the situation had now grown desperate. How could I live the life of a friar, wandering the highways from town to town converting Protestants and atheists, if I had to get about without legs, which were going to have to be amputated in the morning after it was revealed that gangrene had set in, as it surely was about to do? I had already lost the feeling in my feet and one hand was numb. How could I bless the crowds without hands?

I remembered that the Church considers prudence a virtue. I took two more pillows from the bed and lay them lengthwise underneath me as a temporary measure until straw could be obtained. Thus ensconced in my frugal poverty on the floor, I said a decade of the rosary and drifted off to sleep, with angels all about me smiling at my youthful spiritual fervour.

I have yet to figure out what to do about Lent this year and I'm running out of time. Lent is approaching. Saint Francis, pray for me.


At 9:55 am, February 08, 2005 , Blogger Rebecca said...

Another great post, John - thanks so much for sharing that. I think we've all had these kinds of moments in our youth, and it was so enjoyable to step back in time and recall some of my own silly yet well-meant actions.

I hope you don't mind, but I've included this post in the Catholic Carnival roundup I'm hosting this week on my blog - the theme is Lent, and it fit in so nicely.

Have a wonderful day!

At 1:24 pm, February 08, 2005 , Blogger Philothea Rose said...

That was a great post that brought a smile to my face, for I have had similar sentiments.

At 4:37 pm, February 08, 2005 , Blogger John the Mad said...

Your kind comments are much appreciated. I enjoyed reminiscing on this post.

At 9:22 pm, February 11, 2005 , Blogger ~m2~ said...

being a relatively new convert (it will be my 10th anniversary this upcoming Easter vigil), i read this post with a huge grin across my face as my piety came at a much later date and i imagined you doing this as an adult.

it could happen. couldn't it?


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