Portrait of a Sculptor (c. 1625), Daniele Crespi
Maybe the most amazing work that I saw in my time in Europe though was Michelangelo’s famous sculpture David in Florence. It’s famous not only for its flawless depiction of the male form but also because it was made from a single piece of marble twice rejected by other sculptors as inferior. Supposedly, when Michelangelo was asked how he fashioned such a tremendous sculpture, he stated that it wasn’t very hard; he simply chipped away all the marble that did not fit David’s form.
This Lent, I would say that God wishes to do something very similar with us. We recognize that the world is not as it should be, and the road to change must begin with us. Like flawed pieces of marble, we recognize our faults and our inferiorities, but we also know that – like Michelangelo – the divine artist nonetheless sees something of value within us, a master work ready to be unveiled. Lent offers us the chance to be better interiorly so that we can start to build a better world exteriorly.
In the Gospel we heard, Jesus instructs his disciples on how to pray, fast, and give alms in the right way. In telling them how to do these things, he makes a certain presumption – that we should do them. The secular mindset of today rejects these suggestions of self-improvement – it scorns the notion that we need to pray and fast and give to the poor. But you and I understand that we are not perfect; indeed, we are flawed and in need of further fashioning, and in this Lenten season, God chooses these tools by which to make us more as he wishes us to be.
In the hand of God, the penitential practices of Lent can have real effect. Think of prayer and fasting as a kind of hammer and chisel to our souls. They work together to detach us from things which are good (or at least not bad) in and of themselves – material things like food and drink, television, social media – so that we can strive to live more for the greatest good, which is God. In the Gospel, Jesus tells us that our prayer should be devout and not showy, not so much secretive as concentrated on God and not on being observed by others. Even more, these practices – especially fasting – should be joyful. We miss the entire point if we focus on what we’re giving up and how hard it is and not on the fact that we are creating more space in our lives for the very one for whom our hearts have been created.
If prayer and fasting are like hammer and chisel, then perhaps almsgiving is like a file or a rasp, which smooth out our rough edges to even greater perfection. Almsgiving – that is, the giving of money to the needy, whether to a church, to a friend in need, to a charitable organization which legitimately helps the poor – forces us to focus not on ourselves but on another. Prayer and fasting are good practices, but if we do them alone, we can still become too wrapped up in ourselves, perhaps even bordering on a self-focused pride about our own spiritual growth. Helping the poor and the needy forces us to come out of our own little worlds and find Christ in those who are less fortunate.
So what are some practical ways that we can allow the Lord to use these penitential tools in this season of Lent?
· For prayer, consider starting your day or ending your day (or both) with a brief prayer. In the morning, you can offer to God all the things that you’re going to experience that day, both good and bad, and say a Hail Mary so that Mary can help you to do that. In the evening, call to mind where God was present to you throughout that day, and where you responded to him and where you didn’t, and say an Act of Contrition for all of your sins.
· For fasting, consider giving something up beyond coffee or chocolate. What if you were to do something like go vegetarian for the whole of Lent? Or, for those who are of age, no booze? Maybe the thing that many of us most need to fast from is our constant to desire to have a screen in front of our face. Think about abstaining from social media two days a week, or giving up television until all of your other responsibilities for the day (including prayer time) are taken care of. I guarantee you will have a deeper sense of God’s presence in your life.
· For almsgiving, consider donating beyond the usual charity that you always fall back upon. If you’re a student, perhaps you can save the money on the pizza you might buy on Friday night and put it in the collection basket on Sunday morning? Or if you really want to make a difference to a worthy charity, take home a Catholic Relief Services Rice Bowl this Sunday, keep it during Lent, and bring it back before Easter. That money will go to support relief and humanitarian efforts being done by the US Catholic Church (being done in your name) in the poorest countries in the world.
You might take these suggestions, or you might have some ideas of your own. Remember that whatever you do, these penances of fasting, prayer, and giving alms are not ends in themselves – they are merely steps along the path of spiritual growth that God has for each of us.
David, detail (c. 1504), Michelangelo Buonarroti
Friends, this Lent, Jesus invites us to travel with him: not on a journey abroad – to encounter works of art made by others – but on a journey within – to encounter the work of art that he is forming us to be. He is the artist and we are the masterpiece. This season, let us open ourselves to the tools of his transformation, so that by prayer, fasting, and almsgiving Jesus might create each of us, more and more, to be his perfect image in the world.