Many of us gave up something for Lent or instituted some special penitential act of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving during the Lenten period. These practices strip us of our attachments, free us from the things we allow to control us, and remind us that the only one on whom we should depend is the Lord. What happens to our discipline after the Alleluias of Easter return?
Catholics are known popularly for certain things like smells and bells in worship, for praying the rosary, and for eating fish on Fridays. During Lent this year a question came to my office regarding the keeping of Friday throughout the year. We are mostly all aware that in Canada Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of fasting and abstinence. Although it is no longer required that Catholics abstain from meat on all Fridays of the year, many do and the value behind the practice warrants our consideration. As it happens, in accordance with the prescriptions of canon 1253, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops decrees that Fridays are days of abstinence, but Catholics can substitute special acts of charity or piety on this day.
As Lent was coming to a close this year, I felt that I needed to take on a greater penance for the period of Holy Week. As I struggled through Lent I saw that an attachment to communicating with friends over e-mail and Facebook was actually stealing from my prayer. These forms of social media are wonderful tools that permit me to cultivate and maintain many life-giving relationships but I recognized that I was also allowing them to take away from my relationship with God. I decided that I would forego both personal e-mail and Facebook from Palm Sunday until after the Easter Vigil. I warned the friends I communicate with most often so that they would not wonder why I did not answer their messages and told them that they were free to phone or wait until Easter to communicate with me. In practice, this penance was both easy and difficult. It was easy because social media was not a basic need over the course of that week. It was difficult because I encountered and had to break several patterns and habits that had control over me. Then one evening I experienced a particularly striking moment of grace. I was in prayer—a time no longer stolen by the internet—when the Lord showed me how utterly complete I am in Christ. In that stillness and quiet apart from the chatter of social media I found that I needed not strive or search for anything or anyone but Christ alone, who is already with me.
Those moments of grace come few and far between but when they are granted, I nearly burst with gratitude. I began to think about the joy of being liberated from my attachments during this time of penance and wondered how quickly I would return to my former habits once Easter arrived despite the joy and despite the gratitude. It was then I remembered the question that had come to my office, the question about keeping Fridays throughout the year.
During the month of May this year we are firmly in the Easter season. Yet, throughout the year, we are to think of every Sunday as a “little Easter” in that it is our weekly celebration of Jesus’ victory over sin and death, and our eventual victory with him. As we know, it is not possible to separate the Resurrection from the Cross—Good Friday is inseparable from Easter Sunday. So, we might also think about every Friday as a “little Good Friday”, a day of sharing in the Lord’s cross and of learning to obey the will of the Father.
Penitential practices are not primarily punishments nor are they only for Lent. They serve to build up our willpower and increase our resistance to temptation in small things so that our spiritual muscles are toned and ready when we encounter bigger temptations. In this way penance is akin to exercise, which is recommended for every week and the intense period of Lent is like boot camp! Now that we are in Easter season, with God’s grace I plan to extend my Holy Week abstinence from personal e-mail and Facebook to all Fridays throughout the year. I am eager for this weekly practice so that I might regularly experience the joy of freedom from attachment and the consolation of an intimate relationship of prayer with the Lord. What form of penance could you begin to do this Friday and every Friday?