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Local view: Lent has lessons to help everyone

Freethinkers and religious people, too, can keep a Lenten (or spring) discipline and find it important for the reconsideration of their goals, I think.

I considered the range of our choices on Ash Wednesday early in March while in California to deliver a talk on a university campus. Walking across the campus minding my own business I fell in behind a young woman speaking on her cellphone to her mother. The student had just come from a class where she had some academic triumph she wanted not just to share but to be praised for. She related it, whatever it was.

Her mother then spoke; I could not hear her. But apparently she told her daughter that whatever she had done was “impressive.” The daughter next responded to her mom in high dudgeon, “Impressive? Impressive!?! You’ll have to do better than that, Mom!”

I do not think that this young woman had just cured cancer, negotiated peace in the Middle East or solved the problem of world hunger.

Whatever she had done was probably not monumental. If what she had done was somehow seen as good by her professor and was impressive to her mom, that is, it seems to me, a pretty good deal. Someone is growing in age and in wisdom; someone else is paying attention to that growth and finding it impressive and is saying so. That should be quite a good day for the young woman, for the professor, for the mom and (we believers assert) for God, too.

Christian teaching reminds us that sin is an offense against God; sin is not impressive. Virtue and goodness are the polar opposites of sin; whatever does not offend God is pleasing to God and enriches us and all the world. Taking God out of the equation, the idea still is sensible. Virtue and goodness are better paths than wickedness: better for me and better for the community. Lenten practices challenge us not to give in to our baser instincts and act selfishly or in a way that will harm others.

A Catholic prayer helps explain how the Lenten experience could profit any person of good will and help them maintain a religious vision, too. The Third Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer for Lent tells us how we are to approach this season and why. We say to God in prayer, “For you will that our self-denial should give you thanks, humble our sinful pride, contribute to the feeding of the poor, and so help us imitate you in your kindness.”

Is there a person of good will, religious or not, who would not find it good to humble her or his pride and contribute to the feeding of the poor? We can use the young college student mentioned above as a model for all of us: By denying herself not just food and drink but of the need to be excessively praised for the ordinary achievements of an ordinary day she could have humbled her pride, been in closer touch with her own abilities and gifts and grown in wisdom. That would have been good. Then she could have helped feed the poor not just from the excess of food she didn’t consume but with a greater awareness of the needs of others, both their physical and emotional (or material and spiritual) needs. When she or we have done these things, we have made a profitable journey through Lent (or toward spring).

The next step is where we religious people differ in our motivation: When we do good things, we seek to imitate the goodness of God. We believe that when we seek God and radiate God’s own kindness and compassion, then we shall be perfect (and yes, that’s still a ways off for most of us). We believe that the one who humbled himself to share in our humanity will call us to share in his divinity. That’s a hopeful, profitable journey, too.

The Rev. William C. Graham is a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Duluth who has been appointed visiting professor at Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minn. His latest book is “100 Days Closer to Christ” (Liturgical Press).