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People who take the faith seriously are embarrassed to be called “devout Catholics” or “good Catholics.” Would they be happier labeled observant? “Observant” as in “to be observed.” Observant Jews can be distinguished by their yarmulkes, black coats and walking together to synagogue on the Sabbath. Taking a page from the Jews, whom Pope John Paul II called our “older brothers,” we, too, can be more visible. Ash Wednesday’s marking of the brow with ashes is one way of being seen as faithful, despite Biblical reminders to fast and pray in secret.
Our dress and our manner rarely distinguish Catholics from anybody else. But we are called, nevertheless, to be visible ambassadors for Christ. The National Catholic Reporter’s writer John L. Allen, Jr. recently conducted a readership poll of the most important mega-trends in the church today. Top of the list was the greater assertion of Catholic identity. This mega-trend coincides with Pope Benedict XVI’s agenda. He urges greater emphasis on Catholic practices to invigorate our sense of Catholic identification.
Catholic identity is wrapped up with being observant. Some Church practices that were much more common in the past made this easier. We recall the ways of celebrating the faith with feast days, saints’ days, and Marian processions where little girls wear white dresses and flowers in their hair. Family rosaries were prayed especially during May and October. Confession was a regular event. Each member of the family was attached to some sort of a parish group, whether a teen club or the Altar Society. This is not to say we must return to 50 years ago, but perhaps revive some ways of being observant.
During Lent we are made more aware of the ways to purify. Bad habits are tackled. Prayers and fasting rules followed. Sacrifice is a daily practice. Each day in some way we try to practice denial of self and pierce the armor of our selfishness. Prayer turns us away from our self-preoccupation and fasting prods us to forget about the body. We are urged to give up some pleasures for Lent. Certain foods and drink maybe are eliminated for a time. Other creature comforts are shelved. Favorite activities, such as television watching and shopping are curtailed. (Not shopping on Sunday is a “twofer!”). Our denials have a public aspect when we decline the offer of a chocolate or a martini: “I gave it up for Lent.”
“How to Pray Always,” a small book (originally published in 1926, reissued in 2004, by Sophia Institute Press) contains some useful devotions. One chapter, called “Turn Everything into Prayer,” is particularly arresting. There is a sort of efficiency to this idea of making daily activities part of prayer. (No decision yet on whether you can pray on the Internet.) One begins with how would Christ fulfill this humble activity of my life? Answer: By doing the very best we can. The book tells us, “God does not ask us to do something different, but to do what has to be done differently -- to change not our daily actions, but the manner in which we perform them. To iron the linens or correct an exercise, if it is part of our duty, merits a heavenly reward.”
Given that the world of the senses distracts us from prayer, the little book advises combining a pious thought with an ordinary act. We might associate this practice with our grandparents’ more devout ways. Some good souls adopt a pious thought when performing commonplace action, such as leaving the house, or crossing themselves whenever they pass a church. Here one utilizes the detail of everyday life as reminder of the spiritual world.
One technique for daily meditation exercises the virtue of detachment which allows turning everything into prayer. This is true multi-tasking! Standing in line at the grocery check-out counter or waiting for the traffic light to change, rather than practicing impatience, practice prayer and patience. Repeat the Hail Mary or another short prayer. In this spirit, when the car in front of you doesn’t respond to the light change, you won’t be tempted to honk your horn, even if you love Jesus.
A priest friend of ours was visiting Boston a few weeks ago. We asked him to suggest ways of renewal of our Catholic identity. He proposed meditation and physical exercise. Conveniently he has a DVD available called “Yoga Prayer: An Embodied Christian Spiritual Practice.” It contains the prescription for a spiritual blending of mind and body. Check it out.
His second suggestion was to return Sundays to their old meaning of Sabbath, a time set apart from the others days of the week. The Sabbath agenda is simply to pray and play. Maybe reading is lost in the busy week, so then reading is a good use of the day. No cleaning the garage or raking leaves. He didn’t say anything about not cooking, though. Our orthodox Jewish friends complete cooking tasks before the Sabbath.
For the workaholic, the Sabbath represents a real challenge. Reading for the overactive or exercise for the sedentary, either way we can achieve a new balance and grace in our lives. He told us the ideal of the Friday fast means no food for 23 hours after the Thursday meal and naturally, and absent meat. (Recently someone remarked he had read that the fish-on-Friday requirement was due to early popes owning fishing interests. This tale proves once again, you can read almost anything.)
St. Augustine said food not taken for you must benefit someone else. Donating the food or the money saved to a soup kitchen or preparing sandwiches for a shelter would probably satisfy Augustine.
Our entertainment during these 40 days can be concentrated on Catholic themes. Movies and books may be chosen for their Catholic appeal. Select some oldies but goodies such as “The Power and the Glory,” by Graham Greene, “A Man for All Seasons,” and “The Mission” and filmed version of W. Somerset Maugham’s “The Painted Veil.” There is, also, “Saint Ralph,” a movie about a boy who runs the Boston Marathon and needs a miracle. We won’t tell you which he achieves.
Heightened Catholic identity can come about by greater observance of all things Catholic. Lent is, of course, a practice run, a tune up for the real marathon.
Kevin Ryan is a professor and founder of the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University and is a member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.