A French priest says it actually happened to him. An armed robber accosted him on a dark back street in Paris and demanded his wallet. As the priest opened his coat to reach for the wallet, the thief caught sight of the clerical collar for the first time and immediately apologized saying: “Never mind, Father, I didn’t realize you were a priest – I’ll be on my way.” The priest was relieved, of course, and good naturedly offered the man a cigar, to which the man replied: “No thank you, I’m giving up smoking for Lent.” Obviously, the man hadn’t gotten the whole idea of the meaning of Lent. But then again, this story has something to say about human nature, life in modern society, and social etiquette.
The time of Lent is much more than mere social etiquette. It’s more than just giving up a cigars. Lent, is the forty days of spiritual practice that can help us examine and calibrate the human heart. It is a time for us to look inward, to delve deeper into ourselves and what it means to be a Christian and for that matter, what it means to be a decent human being. This is a time of really examining ourselves and hopefully getting honest about who we are. It’s a time of prayer, of spiritual discipline, of giving, and a time of cleansing our hearts.
The word “Lent” comes from the old English word for “spring”, a reference not only to what is happening in the natural world, but also what is happening in the spiritual world. Lent covers the six weeks before Easter, the great Christian festival of new life. For Earlier Christians it was a time for the greening of the soul, which began with penitence and fasting. New converts where prepared for holy baptism on Easter eve, or what we know as the Great Vigil of Easter, and people whose sins had separated them from the community were invited back. Those who accepted the invitation knew that more would be required of them than just showing up (or just giving up cigars). During Lent, they would join the whole congregation in the solemn work of self-examination and repentance, designed to renew their faith in God and restore their fellowship with one another. Who wouldn’t feel that same spirit is needed in today’s world?
But as I like to say: If you want to change the world, start with yourself.
In the context of our life today there are several ways to approach the examination of conscience. One that is well-known in the Christian tradition is what we refer to in the Episcopal Church as The Rite of Reconciliation of a Penitent understood by some as Confession. There is also the Ignatian method of The Daily Examen, which is an ongoing daily prayer to help one examine their conscience. I also like the approach taken by 12-Step Spirituality of a “fearless and searching moral inventory” that first helps build one’s foundation in recovery, and then is applied on an ongoing basis as a way to continue to take personal inventory, to admit shortcomings and amend one’s life. In all of these methods of turning inward for self-examination, the words of the Psalmist seem appropriate: “Create in us a clean heart, oh God, and renew a right spirit within us.”
So what does this all mean for each of us personally? What does it mean for us as a society and as a global community? Because although the Christian calendar marks this time of Lent for us, is it not important for all of us everywhere, regardless of spiritual tradition, denominational stripes, national origin, or political affiliation to take time to assess where we are, to re-evaluate, to look at where we are off the mark, and to think about how we might do better for ourselves as well as for the common good of all?
There seems to be a great need in our world today for the type of introspection that can promote honest appraisal, truth-telling, reconciliation, and amendment of life. We live in a time when the work toward a unified consciousness and mutual respect and love seems more urgent that ever. It is a time when people are really questioning what truth means, what honesty is, and what true integrity looks like. Maybe we are moving into a time of “Lent” in the grander scheme of things – in the broader national and global consciousness. Maye it’s time to take stock honestly about who we are as individuals, as a nation, and as a global community. The time seems critical for us to decide who we want to be as we move on from this moment.
Yes, create in us a clean heart of God, and renew a right spirit within us. This seems like a good place to start. For all sorts of good things can spring from such a desire for goodness.