If you happened to go out and about last Wednesday, you may have noticed quite a few people who looked like they had recently lost a fight with a chimney sweep… That’s right, it was just Ash Wednesday, which means here we are, back in the season of Lent.
For those of us who grew up Catholic, you’ll remember it as a ritual your parents and grandparents forced you to participate in. You’d be made to go to church more often than usual, have the priest schmear ashes on your forehead, give up meat on Fridays, and most notably “give up” something. And every year when it comes around I find myself asking the same question: “Does this have any real meaning in 2019 in South Florida, or has this been relegated to the realm of mindless ritual and unnecessary pius pageantry?”
The conclusion I’ve come to is that the answer is very closely related to the “spiritual, but not religious” phenom that has taken over the world.
When one says that they are “spiritual, but not religious,” to me, that means “I am still seeking the answers to the great mysteries of life, and hope to commune on a deeper level with my fellow man and the universe around me, but I find that religious tradition limits my ability to do so, or teaches things that I have found to be untrue or even harmful.” And even as a Catholic priest, when someone tells me that they are “spiritual, but not religious,” I find myself at a loss of any compelling reason for them to be anything else.
Why? Because spirituality must be at the core of everything we do in every aspect of our life. We must be seekers of meaning and truth and sowers of love and compassion… “Because I said so,” or “This is simply how things are done” is not an adequate justification to do anything anymore.
If our observation of Lent is nothing more than the fulfillment of childhood indoctrination and habituation, then it is valueless.
But it doesn’t need to be that way.
There is still a rich spiritual bounty to be had, but we need to do a little bit of work to unlearn some things, and to find the meaning that has been there all along but was lost.
Matthew 3:12 delivers an all too familiar line: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire."
That verse is more often than not used to drive home the point that some of us are headed to Heaven, and others off to hell. But there is perhaps a better understanding of this allegory… What if we put ourselves into the place of the farmer with his “winnowing fork” and let that field, wheat, chaff, and all be the totality of our life? We can take this season of Lent to be an invitation to analyze our life, our decisions, our behaviors, our habits, and even our relationships, asking ourselves, “What do I have that is of tremendous value (the wheat),” and “What is hurting us or holding us back (the chaff (weeds)?”
Imagine if instead of giving up meat and chocolate, which does no real good for anybody, we gave up all our bad habits and hurtful behaviors for Lent. What an amazing world we would live in, and how much healthier we’d all be.
Fr. Rich Vitale is the associate pastor of Community Outreach of Holy Angels National Catholic Church, and the interim director of Operations of Impulse Group South Florida. He lives in Wilton Manors with his husband Sean, and his Cat, Miss Kitty.