Recently, I was talking to a friend of mine about Lent. She remarked that it is illegitimate to give up for Lent what one ought to give up anyway. I laughed about the observation, but later gave it some serious thought.
Not all blessings are alike, and not all burdens are alike. Some blessings are merely enjoyable, and others inspire us to follow God’s will more closely. Some burdens are merely inconvenient or tedious; others can lead us away from God. My friend’s comments on what constitutes a legitimate lenten penance brought me to the realization that not all renewal is equal.
Some experiences of renewal are merely positive and constructive. If you’ve been worrying about your health, or have been the recipient of someone’s nagging about your health, you might be in need of some renewal of your exercise regimen or your resolve with regard to your diet or your commitment to follow doctor’s orders. If you took those steps needed to improve your health, it might be a real experience of renewal for you.
Spiritual renewal is a different matter, however. While increased exercise and decreased calorie intake can improve your health, those measures are unlikely to improve your relationship with God; those sorts of activities are not legitimate spiritual renewal.
Lent invites us to personal and communal renewal of our relationship with God. Today’s first reading says, “Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relenting in punishment.” (Joel 2:13) These words are a command to embark on a path toward spiritual renewal. When the prophet, speaking on God’s behalf says, “Rend your hearts, not your garments,” he means that spiritual renewal is an interior disposition rather than a physical demonstration. The prophecy then offers instruction on precisely the inner disposition necessary for spiritual renewal: imitation of God, who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relenting in punishment.”
Many things in our lives need to be renewed from time to time; not all of those things lead us to follow God’s will more closely. Lent is a time for spiritual renewal: to come to know God’s will more fully, and to accomplish God’s will more fully. The communal penances of fasting, prayer and almsgiving that we perform during Lent are intended to have this result. Today, you have also to choose a personal penance. Rather than being satisfied with any form of renewal, make certain that your penance renews your relationship with God. Let this Lent renew your spirit.