Tuesday, February 20, 2007

What should I give up?

Every day Pat goes into the local pub and orders 3 beers. The bartender thinks this is odd, but for a long time, doesn't say anything. Week after week, it is the same story, Pat comes into the bar and orders 3 beers. Finally, after many months of this, the bartender’s curiosity gets the better of him, and so he finally asks Pat what the deal is about 3 drinks. “Well,” Pat begins to explain, “My brothers live far away and when we were younger men, we swore we'd always share a drink together every day. And, so, I come in here and have one for me, one for my brother Joe and one for my brother Francis.” The bartender thought this was a very nice custom. A few months later, though, Pat comes in one day and says to the bartender, “Give me two beers today.” The bartender is at first shocked, realizing something bad must have happened to Joe or Francis. He finally approached Pat and said very delicately. “Pat, I’m so sorry about your brother. Is there anything I can do?” Pat looks at him confused and says, “Why do you think there’s something wrong with my brother?” The bartender responds, “Well you only ordered the two beers today, so I assume something must have happened.” Pat paused for a moment and began to chuckle, “My brothers are fine. It’s just - I gave up drinking for Lent.”

As we gather here tonight on this Mardi Gras, we’re probably thinking a little bit about what we’re going to give up for Lent this year. It is always interesting to me how much this aspect of our Lenten practices gains so much attention. It’s always a number one topic on people’s minds – what are you giving up? Let’s see where you are all at – what are some of the things that you have given up in the past?

I can tell you, sometimes the way we approach this issue can hit the mark, other times it can really miss the mark. The whole key is to understand the nature of the word “sacrifice.” Most times if we were asked to define that word, sacrifice, we would define it simply as giving something up. And that is true enough, giving something up, is most definitely a part of sacrifice. But, when we explore a little more deeply, we discover so much more. The word “sacrifice” comes to us from two Latin words – sacra, meaning “holy,” and ficio, a verb which means “to make.” So a sacrifice is not just giving up – the giving up is only the means – the goal of the giving up is to make you holy. So, sacrifice isn’t meant to be all pain, no gain. It is definitely meant to hurt a little bit so that we know it is there, but there is supposed to be some great gain in our spiritual life.

So, more on hitting and missing that mark. I’ll never forget about 10 years ago or so, I made the big decision for my Lenten sacrifice, to give up caffeine for Lent. Now, you need to understand that I drink about a pot to a pot and a half of coffee every day. I love my caffeine. So, anyway, I gave up coffee that year, and about two weeks into that particular Lenten season, I was a bear. I was barking at people, I was grumpy all day, I had a headache that wouldn’t quit. I had trouble concentrating. My point? As any of the brothers I was living with would attest to – that sacrifice didn’t make me holy. Quite the opposite effect, in fact.

But, two stories on the other side. The very next year, knowing for certain I wouldn’t take the same route, I instead decided that what I would give up was some of my free time. I was living in Boston at the time, this was while I was still in the seminary. And, in Boston, there are a lot of homeless people on the streets begging. Now, I had decided long before that I would not give them money. You know the mindset, we’ve all had it at times – it says, they’ll only use that money for booze, drugs or some other bad thing. And, that might be very true. But, this particular year, I had a realization that I was using that very self-righteous position to excuse myself from doing anything. So, what I decided to do that year was to every day, make up a couple dozen sandwiches, fill a large thermos with coffee, and spend an hour or so going around the neighborhood, towards Government Center and bring to these men and women some food and something hot to drink.

What a transformative experience this was for me. Immediately – “they” as we call anyone other than us – became people, people who were living very difficult lives – sometimes because of addiction, often because of mental illness, quite frequently because of lost jobs, or otherwise bad economic situations. What I gave up was an hour a day that would have probably been spent watching yet another mindless thing on television, but what I gained was a daily encounter with Jesus Christ in the presence of these people. Remember He told us, “When you do this for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you do it for me.”

Another year that always sticks out is not as dramatic, but just as powerful in my spiritual life. Again, I decided the sacrifice would be “of time” but this particular year I decided to take an hour a day and sit before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. Not in active, wordy prayers, but just in silence, sitting in the Presence of Our Lord. The first two weeks were torture – you know, sometimes we don’t think about how busy our lives our and even more, how busy our minds are – constantly working away and thinking about far too many things. But, once I broke through that barrier of the internal busyness of my life, I came to treasure that time alone, in quiet, with Jesus. And many things in my life changed – I became much more gentle, much more centered, much more peaceful. It really did have a tremendous effect on the holiness in my life.

This is what Lent is all about. Traditionally, we say that there are three central aspects to Lent. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving. We’ll hear that in the Gospel reading at Mass tomorrow: Jesus says, “When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others…When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them…When you fast,do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting.”

These are all very active things – actively engaging in a life of prayer, actively taking the time to fast – from meat on certain days, from meals on others, but hopefully also fasting from other things as well – the things that will help us to become holier people. So, the challenge for us tonight is to become holier people. We have 40 days. Tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, is February 21st. Lent ends with the beginning of Holy Week on April 1. Will you be a holier person on April 1 than you are today? Let us all pray that we will. I’ll just end with a simple reflection that I came across somewhere along the line that I think is a helpful guide to the season:

What can I give up?

Give up complaining. . . . . . . .focus on gratitude.
Give up pessimism. . . . . . . . . become an optimist.
Give up harsh judgments . . .think kindly thoughts.
Give up worry. . . . . . . . . . . . . trust in God’s plan.
Give up discouragement. . . . .be full of hope.
Give up bitterness. . . . . . . . . . turn to forgiveness.
Give up hatred. . . . . . . . . . . . . return good for evil.
Give up negativism . . . . . . . . .be positive.
Give up anger. . . . . . . . . . . . . .be more patient.
Give up pettiness. . . . . . . . . . .become mature.
Give up gloom. . . . . . . . . . . . . .enjoy the beauty that is all around you.
Give up jealousy. . . . . . . . . . . .pray for trust.
Give up gossiping. . . . . . . . . . .control your tongue.
Give up sin. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . turn to virtue.

Thank you and God bless.

(This is from a talk I gave to our local Knights of Columbus Chapter tonight.)

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