The motive behind the intent

The money finishing did not end the project. One of the twelve happened to tell her different Lenten story to a friend who was a gynaecologist.

May 12, 2023

As we are well into the season of Easter, I’d like to know if the fasting, going vegetarian, or being pescetarian during Lent has changed your life in anyway? Not really? I guessed as much.

That’s why I don’t put much stead into that part of Lent. As an adult journalist and psychology student coming into the Catholic Church 21 years ago, I understood, and yet was fascinated by the yearly ritual of fasting (primarily), almsgiving and penance that preceded Easter. As an adult catechumen, I was taught that the reason we fasted was to put ourselves in solidarity with the poor, and those who did not enjoy food security.

However, having been a volunteer in the recovery stages of the Asian tsunami, living with the people of Aceh in Indonesia and documenting the struggle to emerge from one of the most major catastrophes to hit Asia, I learnt that physical hunger is nothing compared to the need to belong, to call somewhere home.

In Aceh, survivors of the tsunami were in a place that was both familiar and alien. The ground they trod was still Aceh in name, but landmarks, buildings, villages, homes had all been lost in the massive killer waves. Now, even 19 years on, thousands no longer live on what used to be their land. They have food, they do not go hungry, but they remain displaced. The term ‘displaced’, in humanitarian terminology is to be removed from a usual or proper place due to circumstances beyond the control of the displaced.
The biggest objective of Lent is to take people out of their comfort zones, so that change can be allowed to happen (I will not say ‘forced’ because a Lenten change has an almost supernatural element to it, and many times, can only be brought about by divine help). Catholics who do not want to stay at the lowest common denominator of their faith need to use Lent as a means to get to another level of communion with God, the world, and themselves.

And that level does not have a 40-day time frame. Things given up, or undertaken in Lent, need to shine from Easter to eternity. Any changes made at Lent needs to change the ways we eat, live, work, fellowship, worship and contemplate. Congratulating oneself for living on cabbage, chutney and white rice for 40 days is vainglorious if that denial bears no fruit from Easter onwards.
The beauty of our God, however, is timelessness. There’s no ‘limited time’ offer to God’s call to live a life beyond what we already know. While many deathbed confessions and professions are heartfelt and true, I, for one, would rather live better while I have life ahead of me, than seek a nth hour pardon.

While I did not fast during Lent, I did gather a dozen friends who were, and I presented them with an idea. In a way to going beyond just fasting, what if each person who was fasting donated the equivalent of the meal they would have eaten? On a loose honour system, each person put away the cost of their Subway meal, or chap fun, or banana leaf rice into a kitty, and at the end of Lent, we had around RM6,000 from the collection. Working with an accredited aid foundation, the money was channelled towards the safe hospital delivery of an undocumented person’s first child, as well as diapers, and provision of food for the post-partum period for the mother.

The money finishing did not end the project. One of the twelve happened to tell her different Lenten story to a friend who was a gynaecologist. The good doctor, though not Catholic, who had hitherto not given thought to how migrant and refugee women brought children into the world without any medical help, has now offered to give gynaecological treatment and assistance, free of charge, for migrant women her friend brings to her.

This is what Lent is about: the birthing of changed behaviour that benefits more than just the penitent. This is why I love Hosea 6:6 so much. Not only at Lent, but each day I live, I hold the verse before me: For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

If we live like this, we live in perpetual communion with the needs of God’s people, and we become the light and salt of the earth, as Christ intended us to be.

(Karen-Michaela Tan is a poet, writer and editor who seeks out God’s presence in the human condition and looks for ways to put the Word of God into real action.)

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