February 22, 2008

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Underestimating the value of discipline in teaching our youth about the faith

As I thought about what I wanted to write for this second week of Lent, my thoughts flashed back to my childhood—way back! (If I have mentioned these thoughts before, forgive me.)

In my early years of grade school—and before our pastor persuaded my parents to send me to our parish school—I attended a public, one-room school out in the country near our home. (One of my uncles was the teacher.)

In those days in southern Indiana, religious instruction for those who attended public schools was held on Saturday mornings at our parish school, which was in town.

Most of us who lived in our rural neighborhood were cousins, and one of our families would get us to town for the instruction. But if the weather was good, we would walk home afterward (only a couple of miles).

I think all of us were usually given a nickel to spend at a corner store in town for a candy bar, which we enjoyed on that walk home after the instruction.

During Lent, at the encouragement of our religion teachers and at the insistence of our parents, almost all of us would give up candy and gum as a Lenten penance.

But we still got the nickel. And we still bought the candy or gum, which we saved in a box (under our beds) until Easter.

What a challenge it was to walk home and not eat the candy on the way! Those of us who did not meet the challenge were roundly chastised by our peers. And what a challenge it was not to sneak some of the candy from the box under my bed before Easter. Mom kept an eye on that temptation!

Yes, I guess I could look back on that Lenten practice critically and see all kinds of things wrong with it.

We could have given the nickel as alms. (By the way, as children, we did have Sunday envelopes for Church and, reluctantly, part of our meager allowance went into the collection basket. It was a good and early teaching about stewardship and our need to give.)

Was it really that much of a Lenten penance if we were still buying the candy and saving it for an Easter gorging? You better believe it was!

In a small but very meaningful way, we learned something about Lent as a season for fasting. And yes, we had a sense of why it was good to give up something that we wanted.

We were taught about the sacrificial love of Jesus for us. And we were being taught to learn how to sacrifice. And being allowed to feast when the long-awaited Easter arrived made a tangible statement about the importance of Jesus’ victory over sin and death.

I remember other things about Lent as a child.

Our family attended the Stations of the Cross, and my childhood imagination was captured by the drama of Christ’s suffering and the different people on the Way of the Cross. Many of you know that particular devotion continues to mean a lot to me.

I also remember, while the Easter bunny would come to lots of other children, he didn’t come to our house until Easter and we knew why.

Then there was Good Friday. From noon until 3 o’clock—until we were old enough to go to church—my brother and I were not allowed the usual time to go outside and play. And we were told why.

We didn’t like it at all, but we learned a deep respect for the suffering and death of Jesus. And we really enjoyed Easter!

To this day, I have a feeling for Lent and a feeling for Easter deep in my bones. This deeply engrained sense of our Catholic devotional observances was learned early, more so by the practices than by words, although both went together.

I mention all of this because these days I think we tend to underestimate the importance of external devotional practices and plain old discipline in teaching our youth about our faith.

I recount my experience to show that there is nothing at all complicated about it. I also mention it because I have a deep concern for the lack of self-discipline among some of our youth.

Self-discipline is learned early on, and it is learned through even-handed and consistent discipline, not sporadic and severe episodes. We learned self-discipline, and as peers, we even affirmed and monitored that challenge amongst ourselves.

If you think about it, what meant a lot to me as a child has just as much meaning for me now and, perhaps, for all of us as adults.

I still need and value the devotional practices of Lent. I’m glad I remember. †

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