Seasonal Reflection: A Fast From the Unusual

Philip O'Shea, OFM Features

During the season of Lent, we are reminded of Jesus’s sacrifice on the Cross to save us from our sins. As we journey toward Easter, we are invited to put aside distractions and focus on prayer. Below, Philip O’Shea, OFM, encourages readers to take advantage of the new perspective Lent gives us.

A great obstacle to the exercise of free will is devotion to the usual, the familiar. Lent gives us an opportunity to depart from this concern and to take up another way of looking at things, of experiencing our humanity, divinized through baptism and sustained through the life of the Gospel. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are integral aspects of our daily involvement, but they are emphasized in the season of preparation for the ultimate reflection of slavery though participation in the resurrection of Jesus. We are almost always unaware of our dependence on the usual; thus the opportunity to escape gives us a fresh insight into the possibilities of freedom.

Our prayer in this season can take on a new degree of discernment as, accompanied by the peculiarity of fasting, it becomes more intimate as the Holy Spirit leads us even more deeply into the experience of the divine. The introduction of conscious fasting into the panoply of daily life redefines experience and leads us into a mysterious indifference to our usual and unremarkable partaking in ordinary life. Almsgiving makes us aware of others, not in a shadowy form, but in the awful involvement with need, the object of our arduous attempts at avoidance.

Lent forces us to recognize the reality in our inner being of a marvelously profound ability to withdraw, not from something, but into something. Withdrawal leads us into a world we would not otherwise embrace, a world which defies inclusion in the usual, the ordinary. Our consciousness is sharpened as we approach familiar dimensions, with a truly hungry desire to know things intimately, as God their creator can know them, the God who reveals himself as essentially a sharer, ever free, ever concerned.

In Lent we experience divine burn-out, which does not mean destruction, but the feeling of the rich fertility of our expertise now reduced to a humbling participation in cooperative rebirth. I live now not as I, but as Christ who lives in me, as I am aware of being a part of his mystical body.

Ash Wednesday, with its calls to repent and believe in the Gospel, is the day we abandon the usual — the total meaning of repentance — and embark on a voyage into God. The ashes, in themselves bizarre as they sit on our foreheads, proclaim that we are residents in the kingdom of the unusual, with its own unique atmosphere of freedom.

Penance is a liberating experience. Denial frees us from the expected and opens us to new and freeing involvement. To feel hungry for a time sharpens our senses to bring in new data. To give money or things — or self — to others helps us to see exactly how much we can do without. Such experience enables us to communicate new ideas, newly hatched as the eggs of the Easter celebration hatch into a new creation.

Lent, therefore, is a time of new freedom. We do not worship the usual; rather we rejoice in the unexplored realms of the world of self-denial, denial of the self we have allowed to develop in constrained environment, but which we now permit to grow divinely. We talk to God in his own atmosphere as our prayers rise like incense before him.

—    Fr. Philip O’Shea is a pastoral associate at St. Anthony Shrine, Boston. Friars interested in submitting reflections about holy days, holidays and other timely topics are asked to contact the HNP Communications Office by phone (646-473-0265 ext. 321) or email.