Conversion through giving and sharing

There was a time in medieval history and in some places even later when believers would use extreme methods of self-discipline or self-punishment during Lent as a penance for sin. We're most familiar with these practices from movies we've seen or, in my case, the historical novels I enjoy reading.

Hair shirts that bit at the flesh, chains around the body's midsection, self-flagellation - these all had their day as accepted practices. Today, they seem barbaric and unhelpful to the spiritual life. But to practitioners, they seemed like a practical and literal way to emulate the sufferings of Christ.

What strikes me as I journey through Lent this year is how much Scripture points us in precisely the other direction. Rather than torture our bodies for the sake of inflicting pain, the readings for Lent constantly remind us that what needs changing is our hearts.

Lent is not a time of intellectual attainment or rigid promises or determinations that Lent will achieve a certain goal for us. It's not a time when we "give up" chocolate in an effort to lose weight. Lent is a time of metanoia, a wonderful word that describes a transformative change of heart.

Take the reading from Ash Wednesday: "Rend your hearts, not your garments" (Jl 2:13).

You could spend a prayer period just pondering what it would mean to render your heart during Lent. An open heart is not telling God what we think we need but listening for the soft voice of God speaking our name.

A few days later in the readings, the prophet Isaiah spells out what type of fasting God desires. We are to break unjust fetters and let the oppressed go free, sharing our bread with the hungry (Is 58:1-10). If we deprive ourselves, according to Isaiah, it's so we can share our excess with those who have little.

That's where the three pillars of Lent intersect: prayer, fasting, almsgiving. The tallest pillar is prayer. Without hearts that are ready to listen, Lent goes by with little transformation.

With a renewed commitment to prayer we turn our fasting into works of mercy, our self-discipline into actions, which makes us people for others. Our almsgiving flows from this, a renewed commitment to steward our resources in a more generous and life-giving way.

Blessed Teresa of Kolkata often spoke of ways to open up the heart in prayer: "Prayer is not asking. Prayer is putting oneself in the hands of God, at His disposition, and listening to His voice in the depth of our hearts."

I don't know about you, but my life has plenty of struggles without adding a hair shirt to my daily routine. The world has enough pain that if we devote ourselves to trying to make a bit of difference, we won't need to add any self-flagellation.

Lent points our hearts outward, from the silence of prayer to the world whose very real pain we embrace.

Caldarola is a freelance writer from Anchorage, Alaska.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015