When I was a young friar new to teaching, I had a colleague, a Sister of Charity of Convent Station in New Jersey, who had been teaching more than twice the number of years I had been alive at that time.
Walking into her classroom as we were preparing for a new liturgical season I saw the following words meticulously cut out of purple construction paper: “You’ll Never Repent for a Lent Well Spent.”
A catchy bulletin board header indeed but one that still rings in my head today over 20 years later.
These last two decades, at the start of each Lent, I’ve pondered this thought about what it means to live Lent well. From a Franciscan perspective, especially, how does one grow closer to God through this season that so clearly calls us to embrace the process of conversion? What guidance do we have from Francis’ writings and life to help us explore this challenge?
Although what we have from Francis regarding Lent is anecdotal and from unknown sources, his writings on penance and abandonment to God’s Will can provide some insight about how we who strive to follow in the footsteps of Christ through the example of St. Francis of Assisi can live a Lent well spent:
Wherever they may be, let all my brothers remember that they have given themselves and abandoned their bodies to the Lord Jesus Christ. For love of Him, they must make themselves vulnerable to their enemies, both visible and invisible, because the Lord says: Whoever loses his life because of me will save it in eternal life. Blessed are they who suffer persecution for the sake of justice, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they persecute you in one town, see to another. Blessed are you when people hate you, speak evil of you, persecute, expel, and abuse you, denounce your name as evil and utter every kind of slander against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad on that day because your reward is great in heaven. (St. Francis of Assisi, The Earlier Rule: XVI: “Those going among the Saracens and other nonbelievers”)
Francis often spent his Lenten journey alone and with little to eat or drink. Some of his biographers have noted how he instructed his brothers to let him be from Ash Wednesday until Holy Thursday, and to never check on him, for he was in the hands of the Lord during this time. Like the rest of the liturgical year, Francis was submissive to the Will of the Father so that he wouldn’t get in his own way of being God’s instrument of peace, love, and mercy here on earth. For Francis, retreating to a cave and sustaining himself on bits of food was only one part of his journey. The other (and more important part, in my opinion) was how he lived his life each day outside of this period of fasting. Was he the person God was calling him to be, so clearly described in the Gospels he fully embraced as his blueprint for life?
Admittedly I am not one who is big on fasting and abstinence. It has always struck me as superficial and temporary if someone gives up chocolate—or, now, social media—but didn’t work to change who they are as a child of God. Sure, at the end of Lent my cholesterol may be a little lower, but how will that work to build up the Kingdom of God? How will that work to support this experience of conversion we’re called to embrace?
I think Francis would agree, even alone and fasting in his cave. In his Testament, he wrote:
The Lord gave me, Brother Francis, thus to begin doing penance in this way: for when I was in sin, it seemed too bitter for me to see lepers. And the Lord Himself led me among them and I showed mercy to them. And when I left them, what had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body. And afterwards I delayed a little and left the world. (emphasis added)
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
– Matthew 25:34–40
Let this Lent be well spent.
Fr. Jason Lody, FCM
St. Anthony of Padua ANCC (Centreville, VA)