LENT started on Wednesday, and now we are plunged into fo ty days of preparation fo the events which are to take. place in Jerusalem. The forty days are already si nailed by the names of th preceding Sundays: Septuagesima (s eventy days), Sexagesima (sixty days) and Quinquagesima (Itly days). n Ash Wednesday our foreheads are marked with ashes in the form of a cross. "Remember, man," the pr est says, "that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return." This is the only time that we are addressed not as "brethren," " rothers," or by our own na es, but simply as an."
hese words — from the story of the Fall in Genesis — herald six weeks of honesty with ourselves. "We stop push ing awkward facts out of our mind," as the Dutch Catechism says, " W e recollect and reflect, 'Remember man'.
"It is also a time for i tiling to better our lives — a time of conversion. It is a time of penance, when we defend our inner freedom against all that curtails our attitude of service and love."
Why forty days? Because forty is the number of days of the Flood, of years of the IsJaelites' wandering, of tl-i days of the fast of Elias, of Moses on Sinai and of our Lord in the desert.
In the past the Church has laid down strict rules about penance. Until quite recently the number of fast days during Lent was considerable. And penance for wrongdoing in the early Church was formidable.
Notorious and grave sinners — idolators, murderers and adulterers, es pecially, were required to do public penance. In certain parts of the Church those who had incurred the penalty of excommunication were granted forgiveness only after they had undertaken penance in four stages: First they became "Weepers" — they were excluded from any part in the liturgy.
Then they could become "Hearers" — they attended Mass until the sermon.
Next they qualified as "Kneelers" — kneeling apart from the rest of the community.
Finally they were "Standers"—excluded from the Offertory and Communion.
Sometimes this penance could be imposed for life, but in any case it was for several years.
Today, most of us get off more lightly. But the members of some religious orders still keep up the tradition of self-inflicted pain by such methods as the discipline, the chain and the hair shirt.
Trappists sleep o n
planks, Discalced Carmelites do not wear shoes and Carthusians eat only one meal a day. On the other hand. the Benedictine tradition is against positive self-affliction.
0 R PORAL p e n ance," says Fr. Peter Hebblethwaite, S.J., editor of the Month, "is a Christian thing. It is not a stoic indifference to pain, and still less some kind of masochism. It is the imitation of Christ in Passiontide."
Although we no longer practise the more extreme forms of corporal penance the Church has certainly not gone soft. Pope Paul recently reminded Catholics of St. Paul's words : "Anyone calling himself a Christian must deny himself, take up his cross and share in Christ's suffering."
In his Lenten Pastoral Cardinal Heenan said : "We are not being told to relax, but on the contrary to increase our penance. The obligation to abstain from meat on Friday has gone not because it was too hard but because it has become too easy.
"It made some people laugh at the Catholic idea of penance. Imagine, they said, doing penance on Friday by eating a fine meal of fish or eggs while for millions in Africa and Asia a meal like that would be sheer luxury.
"The Church wants us to be up-to-date with our penance as with everything else. We must choose penances, bearing in mind the sufferings of our Redeemer and the misery of millions throughout the world."
During Lent many people still give up something which they normally enjoy. Evelyn Waugh always gave up smoking cigars. Each year after the Holy Saturday ceremonies he could be observed striding up and down outside Downside Abbey smoking his first cigar for forty days, and in a much better humour than for weeks previously.
Children often give up something like the jam on their bread, or watching their favourite television programme.
But in the last few years a very positive form of selfdenial has become popular during Lent. It is the family fast. Each year the bishops have promoted "Family Fast Day" — it is on March 8 this year — when whole families practise some form of communal self-denial and send the money to help underprivileged people.
Usually the money is sent through CAFOD (the Catholic Fund f o r Overseas Development) who hope to raise £200,000 this year. Many families and individuals now have their own family fast once or twice a week during Lent.
To give their penance even greater significance a group of families in Wallington. Surrey, put a bread bin on the table during their fast and put the saved money into it.
The Catholic Institute for International Relations has just launched a similar scheme. Send the money you save by fasting to us, they say, and we can help the less fortunate.
WHAT percentage of Catholics do some kind of penance during Lent? John Todd, Chairman of the Catholic People's Weeks, an organisation of priests and lay people which holds residential courses of adult education, says: "I would guess that the number is pretty much the same as before. It is still quite a real thing for many people and I imagine that a significant proportion of Sunday Mass goers do penance of one kind or another" He still sees value in simple forms of self-denial like giving up smoking. "The only problem arises," he says, "when a trivial discipline is blown out of proportion and other people are adversely affected. Like being bad tempered during Lent because you cannot smoke. Then you offend against charity."
"I'm planning to give up my lunchtime pipe and give the money I save to the Save the Children Fund," says Ernst Wiener, 32, an accountant working in Westminster, Mrs. Dorothy Harris, 45, a London secretary, thinks that Lent is a time to take a fresh look at prayer. "Last Lent," she said, "I started to say my night prayers. This time I'm going to try and say them each morning."
But Fr. Sebastian Moore, 0.S.B., a parish priest in Liverpool thinks that "astonishingly few do any kind of penance, simply because the image of penance is a silly one."
"Penitance," he says, "is an attitude of mind and heart. It is the acute consciousness which a Christian should have, that his practical values are a travesty of that unreserved brotherhood of which the Eucharist is the sign.
"Sorrow is the shadow of the Eucharist and its reality depends on the strength of the Eucharist's light in us. The trouble with us Catholics is that we don't appreciate the Eucharist as a human and political rebuke. We are aware of a gap in us between what is and what should be but our version of 'what should be' is individualistic.
"It is simply 'ourselves free of this or that bad habit which worries us'. In other words, we have a sense of guilt but precious little sense of sin.
"We've got to shake ourselves out and get connected with the whole Catholic truth about ourselves—not just the cosy little five per cent we've been brought up on. 'Then we might begin to be of some use to this sick, bewildered society."
Lent is a time of sober realism, the Dutch Catechism tells us. The feasts are suspended in the liturgy, and marriages are not celebrated without special cause.
The liturgy of Lent is remarkable for its choice of Scripture readings. It has
three main subjects penance to obtain forgiveness, reflections on baptism, and the passion of Christ.
"By the law of Christ," Cardinal Heenan says. "all Catholics are obliged to do penance. We must do penance both for our own sins and for the sins of the whole world. During Lent and on every Friday of the year we must be like Simon carrying the cross of Our Lord on the way to Calvary. Our path will be made easy if we refresh ourselves with the Bread t5f Life each day at Holy Mass."
IRECENTLY quoted a woman living near Plymouth as saying that her local priests neglected to visit her. In fact, her complaint referred to her previous parish in another part of the country, and the lady concerned assures me that her present priests are most praiseworthy in their visiting. My apologies to the priests in Plymouth.