Catholics have a bad reputation. The world thinks of us as largely irrelevant and mostly negative.
Society has become so extreme in its embrace of various forms of immorality, we are largely absent from many sectors of society, except to protest them. So we are looked on as the grumpy family member who sits glumly in the corner, interrupting his moody silence only occasionally in order to make things awkward for the people who are trying to have fun.
If Catholics truly are the Debbie Downers we are made out to be, Lent would seem to be our glory season, the time when we can really kill the fun.
So it is helpful to recall that Lent is — choose your jargon — proactive and not reactive, positive and not negative, offense not defense.
1. Lent makes you more beautiful.
No, I don’t mean that Lenten fasting can improve your looks; I mean Lenten prayer can.
Did you ever notice that Mother Teresa is both one of the ugliest women who ever existed, and one of the most beautiful women who ever existed? To describe her features, you have to use the same words you use to describe a troll: wrinkled, leathery, stooped, bags under her eyes, an oversized nose.
But no one who ever met her described her as “ugly.” She was suffused with a radiance that made you want to spend more time with her. She was filled with a deeper beauty than her features could account for.
Catholics believe soul and body are one, and that means, by uniting with God in prayer, everyone can be beautiful.
The features of Mother Teresa didn’t define her. What defined her was the “form” given them by her spirit. There is no one more attractive than someone who has turned their body, whatever body they have, into a vessel for a beautiful spirit.
We Catholics know this phenomenon is not confined to Mother Teresa. The parish lady who prays in the back of the church has a smile that can stop you in your tracks; the children filing out of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd with wonder in their eyes are delightful to see.
If we pray, and really connect with Jesus Christ, we can get some of that same wisdom and innocence which, after all, they get from him.
2. Fasting means you don’t have to settle.
We are all sadly familiar with the feeling of disappointment. It is one of the defining feelings of our time. If we are poor we are disappointed because we fill our minds with images of wealthy happiness that are unattainable. If we are rich we are disappointed because nothing ever lives up to the expectations we have for it.
We all want our lives to be better, bigger and more, but we are all sadly aware of life’s giant lack.
When our soul is too big for this world we have two options: We can shrink our souls to the size of life’s pleasures, or we can expand our awareness to the size of our soul. The more we seek futilely after material pleasures, the more we start to settle; we accept a modified joy, a compromised happiness, we figure “good enough” is as good as anything ever gets.
Fasting in Lent is like shocking our system to make us remember that life’s pleasures are not all that there is. There is something greater, something that truly satisfies; Jesus found it in the desert. We find it in Church.
3. Lent gives you the one greatest happiness available to mankind.
It is central paradox of life that the more we try to make ourselves happy, the less happy we are and the more we try to make someone else happy, the more happy we are. The more you grab at pleasure, the more it slips through your fingers; the more you give it away, the more it fills your heart.
This works in every aspect of our life. Come to work in the pajama pants and sweatshirt that please yourself the most and you will quickly find them unpleasing; but dress to please others and you will find you please yourself, too. In sports, max out your personal glory and not the team’s and all glory will fade; give glory to the teammates and your personal glory will grow.
This isn’t the reign of selfishness — this is “the law of the gift.” “Man finds himself only by making himself a sincere gift to others,” said Vatican II.
By proscribing almsgiving in Lent, the Church is sharing the secret to happiness.
So when in planning what to do this Lent in prayer, fasting and almsgiving — don’t think small and don’t think negatively.
You can easily go through Lent adding a hurried daily rosary, begrudgingly giving up wine, and searching for the most expendable can of food to put in the food drive, but that kind of Lent is irritating.
Pray to become friends with Christ and become his light in the world, fast to make nothing but God satisfy you; and give so you can take the joy the angels do in the happiness of others.
Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.