When the TV show “Survivor” first appeared, I heard a priest adapt the tagline of that show from “Outwit. Outlast. Outplay.” He changed them for Lent to “Outgive. Outfast. Outpray.” A clever reformulation of the core commitments of Lent: Prayer. Fasting. Almsgiving. We are called to push ourselves beyond our comfort zone in each of these disciplines.
These three core commitments for Lent come from the Ash Wednesday gospel reading from the sixth chapter of Matthew. Notice that Jesus presumes that each of these practices are part of the normal course of being a disciple. He doesn’t qualify his direction by saying “if…then.” We can see that Jesus presumes that we are all embracing these practices by his use of the word “when:” “When you give alms…” “When you pray…” “When you fast…”
While we intensify our practices in this regard during Lent, they really should be year-round commitments. When we put these into practice in a focused way during Lent, they can become virtuous habits. I can think of at least two fasting practices that began in Lent that have now become regular habits in my own life.
Including a more focused practice of giving, praying and fasting during Lent is not meant to be forty days of drudgery, but the beginning or continuance of habits that stay with us. We adopt a more intense approach during Lent, and as a result, we hopefully experience a blessing that comes from expanding our hearts to give to others, opening ourselves up to more prayerful conversations with God and offering up some comforts so that we identify with the sufferings of others.
I have reflected that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I have more fully embraced the following habit: I floss my teeth more than I ever have in my life. Let me explain. Don’t misunderstand. There is no evidence for teeth cleaning and COVID avoidance. However, just before coming to the diocese two years ago, I had to cancel my last previously scheduled dentist appointment due to the move. I had intended to find a new dentist upon my arrival here. Then COVID hit. Dentist offices were closed for an extended period, and I didn’t have a local dentist. My response? Since I could not rely on outside assistance, I took it upon myself to increase my flossing.
After a couple of months of embracing that practice more intensely, it has now become a habit. I have a dentist now and my dentist reports that my teeth are in good condition. I know part of that good report is a result of doing something that I may have felt I “had to do” becoming something I just did, and the results have been good.
I offer this simple example so that all of us may enter into Lent with a different attitude this year. Maybe we can embrace practices with more intentionality and be open to these becoming genuine virtuous habits well into the future. Just think about the long-term blessing if this Lent is a springboard to a better way of life: more loving and giving to others, a closer intimacy with Jesus, and living in solidarity with Jesus’ fasting and all those who suffer.
Lent is not a competition, but we can still seek to outdo our own expectations. “Outgive. Outfast. Outpray.” Have a blessed Lent.
The Most Reverend Robert J. McClory
Diocese of Gary