Lent is a uniquely Christian experience, but one that shares many universal qualities and values: reflection, repentance, pilgrimage, and community. It is an experience, I feel, that Christians and non-Christians can in some way share together.
So, why and how should students at a Catholic Jesuit institution live out the precepts of Lent? Let me count the ways:
Fasting: The first pillar of Lent, fasting is the act of refraining, usually from meat on Fridays and from normal amounts of food on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The well known “give up something” falls here as well – fasting provides an opportunity to remove something from one’s life that hinders a better relationship with God and oneself. But fasting also is a form of service – it allows us to stand in solidarity with others, with those who have less, and in some small way experience “the cry of the poor”. I cannot serve others if I don’t know others, if I don’t understand the experiences of others, if I don’t make myself present for those suffering. Fasting is being emotionally and reflectively present to a world in need.
Almsgiving: The second pillar of Lent, almsgiving is a direct reaching out to those in need through service. The word alms is derived from an ancient word for mercy. As in fasting we understand, in almsgiving we act. The hustle of university life provides few opportunities for engaging others in humble, meaningful service. Lent encourages one, in particular a student, to live out his or her reflections. Almsgiving is being physically present to a world in need.
Prayer: The last and arguably most important pillar of Lent, a rededication to prayer and faithful conversation grounds fasting and almsgiving to a greater purpose. In Lent, prayer – or conversation on what really matters, or silence and pause amid the turmoil of modern life – allows our persons to soak up and retain the experiences of fasting and almsgiving, letting these moments of emotional and physical presence with others transform our character and life. Prayer is what puts our service in perspective: it saves us from the hubris of believing that we can “save” the needy and “solve” the world’s problems, while also protecting us from the despair of believing that our engagement and service is meaningless. Prayer is being spiritually and deeply present to a world in need.
Fasting, Almsgiving, Prayer: all three serve as complementary means to knock down the barriers between “us” and “them”. In their own ways, they are all forms of service. Lent provides the opportunity to be present with ourselves, with others, and with God. Lent renews relationships – relationships, in a remarkable way, are not overcome by death. The desire to be present, to be in relationship, to look beyond the end of life to something greater: that, in my opinion, transcends all backgrounds and creeds.