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home : commentary : columns February 21, 2019

How the season of Lent challenges us

By Moises Sandoval | Catholic News Service

Since Lent commemorates the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert fasting, our most common response is to give up something during this penitential season. Most often, but not always, it is a favorite food or drink, like chocolate, another dessert or glass of wine.

In a recent article on Lent in The New York Times, Rick Hamlin, executive editor of Guideposts, writes about a woman who gave up sarcasm. Similarly, we could give up negative attitudes and embrace their opposites.

Jon Kabat-Zinn identifies these in his book, "Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness."

They are nonjudgment, patience, trust (especially of oneself), a beginner's attitude, nonstriving, acceptance and letting go. Certainly, the most difficult is letting go when it comes to the message of Lent that we are all going to die.

One of my daughters, an associate professor of mathematics at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, tells about the mother of one of her friends who had just received a terminal diagnosis in the nursing home and kept asking: "Why me?" To which her daughter responded, "Mother, you are 98 years old!"

We are all pretty much the same. We do not want to accept or talk about death.

I once called my broker, whom I knew well and had dealt with for many years, and was surprised to hear that he was "no longer with the firm." So I asked: "What happened? Did he retire?" The person responding to my call hesitated, then added: "No. He died."

Kristin Neff, in her recent book titled "Self-compassion," suggests it might help to see ourselves as Albert Einstein did, as part of a whole called "Universe," and not as something separate from the rest, which Einstein calls an "optical delusion" of consciousness, a prison limiting us to our personal desires and affection for those nearest to us.

"Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty," he wrote in The Einstein Papers.

One can see such an embrace in a story I read in my morning paper the other day: Windsor, Connecticut, Police Officer Sue Bowman, 56, donated one of her kidneys to a fellow officer, Eduardo Cosme, 47, who had lost both of his to organ failure. "He's got a 9-year-old son who needs his dad," Bowman said.

Lent, which as Hamlin notes, comes from an Old English word for spring, forces us to accept that we are only sojourners and that we will die, "ashes to ashes, dust to dust." Yet, it concludes with Jesus' victory over death and the promise of eternal life.

I hope I can face death with the equanimity and good cheer of my brother Ray. He lives with a heart condition that could take his life at any time.

But, at age 78, and living alone, he continues to savor each day with joy, working at Good Shepherd Catholic School in Denver teaching Spanish to students in kindergarten and in first and second grade, supervising the lunch room and substituting whenever a teacher is absent.

The principal tells him it is a blessing to have him, and his students love him, calling him Mr. S. His routine is one of daily Mass, praying the rosary and frequent confession.

And as for packing his bag for the next life, he has prepaid his funeral, bought the cemetery plot and even planned the memorial for family and friends, all the way to the theme song: Frank Sinatra's "My Way."

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