Lent is primarily known as a time devoted to fast and abstinence.
Our non-Catholic friends feel sorry for us because we have to watch our food. “Isn’t it an awful strain?”
But this is only one side of the season of Lent, and not even the most important one. First and foremost, these weeks between Ash Wednesday and Holy Saturday are set aside as a time of preparation for the greatest feast of the year, Easter.
We are not fasting in commemoration of Our Lord’s fast of forty days, but are imitating Him in his fast of preparation preparation for His great work of Redemption. It is the same with us. Once a year we take forty days out of the three hundred and sixty-five, and we too fast in preparation: in preparation for the commemoration of our Redemption.
We all should get together and work toward the restoration of the meaning of Lent. People nowadays see in it just a gloomy time full of “must nots.” That is a great pity, because Lent is a solemn season rich in hidden mysteries. We must also keep in mind that Lent is only a part of the great Easter season, that it is for Easter what Advent was for Christmas, and that Lent taken by itself would make no more sense than Advent without Christmas at its end. Therefore, we should let Holy Mother Church take us by the hand and lead us not each soul alone, but the whole family as a group-away from the noise of the world into a forty-day retreat.
No other time of the year has been so singled out by the Church as this, in that a completely different Mass is provided for every single day, beginning with Ash Wednesday and continuing through the octave day of Easter; and again for the crowning feast of the Easter season, the eight days of Pentecost. If we keep the closed time as faithfully as our forefathers did-which means keeping away from all noisy outside entertainment such as cocktail parties and dances then we shall find ample time for the imitation of Christ as it is out-lined in every morning’s Mass.
The restoration of the season of Lent was begun in the year when the Holy Father gave back to us the Easter Night. As we now know that in this holiest of all nights we shall be permitted to be reborn in Christ, renewing solemnly, with a lighted candle in our hands, our baptismal vows, we understand more and more clearly the two great thoughts which the Church is developing throughout the whole of Lent: the instruction of the catechumens and the deepening of the contrition of the penitents. Instruction and penance shall become our motto also for these holy weeks.
In this article we will only deal with the first aspect. Instruction this brings us to the Lenten reading program. The time saved through abstention from movies-and it is astonishing to find how much it is!-will be devoted to a carefully chosen reading program. Every year we should divide our reading into three parts: something for the mind, something for the heart, something for the soul.
Something for the mind: This should mean doing serious research. One year we might work on the history of the Church; another year on the sacraments; or we might carefully study a scholarly life of Our Lord Jesus Christ; or a book on Christian ethics; or the Encyclicals of the Pope, or a book on dogma.
For the soul: This should be spiritual reading of a high order, from the works of the saints or saintly writers. For example, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, by St. John of the Cross; The Introduction to a Devout Life, by St. Francis de Sales; The Story of a Soul, by St. Thérèse of Lisieux; The Spiritual Castle, by St. Teresa of Avila; the Soul of the Apostolate, by Abbot Chautard; the books of Abbot Marmion, and similar works.
For the heart: According to the old proverb, “Exempla trahunt Examples draw” it is most encouraging to read the biographies of people who started out as we did but had their minds set on following the word of Our Lord, “be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect.” In other words, to read a well-written biography of a saint (canonised or not) will have the same effect on us as it had once on St. Augustine, who said, after watching saintly people living a holy life: “If he could do it, and she, why not I?’ But it has to be a well-written biography, that is, a book showing a human being in the round, with all his shortcomings that had to be overcome by faithful cooperation with grace and not the old-fashioned hagiography in sugar-candy style with its doubtful statements, carefully stressing that the saint is born a full-fledged saint by describing how the holy baby refused his mother’s breast every Saturday in honour of the Blessed Mother (and, of course, the first words of these remarkable beings invariably must be a piously lisped “Jesus and Mary”). These “saints” never made a mistake, never succumbed to temptation in other words, their literary portraits are identical replicas of their statues in the show windows in Barclay Street and just as inspiring. But we are lucky: the worst seems to be behind us. A new school of writing of the lives of the saints has begun.
If every member of a family adopts this threefold reading programme and comments on the books he has been working on, a great benefit will be flowing from one to the other as they exchange the spiritual goods obtained from their reading. I remember how the enthusiasm of each reader made us exchange books after Lent was over. Years ago it began with the books of Heniy Ghéon: first, The Secret of the Little Flower, followed by the other secrets of the saints. Another year it was Story of a Family, by Fr. Piat, with its back-ground story of the most irresistible saint of our days, Thérèse of Lisieux. Recently we all found St. Teresa of Avila, by Marcelle Aucl-air, the best and most readable of all biographies of this great saint. After we had seen the great film, Monsieur Vincent, we were naturally interested in reading Monsignor Jean Calvet’s version of the saint’?s life, St. Vincent de Paul.
There is no saying how much such an extensive reading program adds to the richness of family life, how many new topics are introduced, to be talked about during the family meals. And one book that should certainly be read aloud during these days of the great retreat is the Holy Bible. It would be a good idea to lean, for one year at least, close to the selections the Church herself makes in the breviary of the priests. In another year one could take one of the prophets (Isaias during Advent. Jeremias during Lent), and go on from there until every book of Holy Scriptures has been read aloud and discussed in the family. In this way we have read through the books of the Old and New Testaments more than once, and have found them an unending source of happiness and spiritual growth. Any family that has tried it will never want to give it up. To set aside the “closed times”? of the year for daily reading aloud is one of the most profitable uses of the time gained. As many questions will be asked, it will be necessary to obtain some source in which to find at least some of the answers. A commentary on the Holy Scriptures should be in every Christian house. (Note: the Angelus has reprinted Fr. Goffine’s “Explanation of the Epistles and Gospels” which is very good).