Someone recently told me a joke involving a burglar pointing a gun at a man and demanding his money. When the man turns, the robber realizes he is a priest and apologizes. The priest promptly forgives the culprit and, in a remarkable display of magnanimity, offers him a cigar.
“No thank you, Father,” the robber replies. “I gave up smoking for Lent.”
As odd as it may seem, I think there is a lesson we can take from this joke. It can be a tempting and easy but subtle trap to become too accustomed, too comfortable, in our faith lives. During mass, we remember to cross ourselves, raise our arms and kneel at the right moments. We dutifully pray before meals throughout the year, light candles during Advent and give something up for Lent.
While none of these are insignificant, they represent a fraction of how we spend our time. It is good to make a sacrifice for Lent, but is it better than striving toward the day-in-and-day-out virtues to which we are called? What does regular prayer mean if we leave mass and gossip? Or ignore the poor? Or, like the joke’s more blatant sin, steal?
Once when I was attending mass in Peru, the priest reminded us that coming to church was not really the most important part of our spirituality. If we, for example, came across a person in need while on our way to mass, our primary obligation would be to stop and do what we could to help, not get to church on time.
This is not meant to be a Puritanical exercise in finger-pointing, nor is it a suggestion that living out the virtues are mutually exclusive from attending mass or adhering to Lenten practices. It is simply a reminder that Lent and its associated rules of self-denial and self-improvement are part of a larger picture that, from a distance, is at the most basic level about growing in holiness and love.