The deeper meaning of self-denial
Days before Ash Wednesday, I was on the phone with a good friend of mine who was curious to find out if I had decided finally to give up for Lent my uninhibited love for coffee. With my fifth mug of coffee for the day in my right hand I replied jokingly, “I don’t know if you or my parishioners would appreciate me forbearing my desires for medium roasted coffee, even for a day!” This statement initiated a fascinating discussion on the meaning of self-denial as a form of penance during this holy season of purification, enlightenment and conversion.
Though worthy as a means of practicing self-discipline, self-denial has a deeper meaning from the Christian perspective. It takes us to the words of Jesus in the Gospel according to Luke when Jesus reminds his disciples that denying oneself – taking up one’s cross and following him – is constitutive to saving one’s life. Together with other forms of penance – prayer, fasting and almsgiving – self-denial must remind us of our baptismal character of having died and risen in Christ. As a new creation, we recognize that in our baptism we were not only bonded to God as beloved sons and daughters but also tightly configured as brothers and sisters in Christ. As such, anything that we decide to refrain or abstain from during this season must be a behavior, interest or pleasure that we are willing to deny because it isolates us from our brothers and sisters and also impedes us from recognizing God’s activity in our lives. In other words, the self-denial must be an emphatic YES to seeing the whole creation as radically relational since our Trinitarian God, whose essence is communion, created a world that is relational in its core. This question to ask this Lent, “Is denying oneself fostering healthier relations with God, others and the whole of creation?”
This brings to mind the beautiful memory I have of last month’s 10-day retreat and pilgrimage to the sites of martyrs in Guatemala and El Salvador. During this Maryknoll pilgrimage for 18 deacons and priests from the United States, we had an overnight trip to the picturesque little town of Santiago de Atitlán, amidst the imposing volcanoes of Guatemala. We were blessed to celebrate a Sunday Mass with more than a 1,000 Tzutuhil Mayan people who had packed the church. I was moved by the immense joy and appreciation of the Tzutuhil people during our entrance procession, especially when the children kept approaching us for an embrace and joining us in our procession to the altar. What a powerful image of the pilgrim Church journeying together toward our final destination of being one in Christ in his total offer to the Father.
This overwhelming experience was compounded by the fact that we had just returned from El Salvador, a country that had undergone a brutal civil war that lasted 12 years in which 75,000 poor peasants, one archbishop (Oscar Romero), 19 priests and four religious women (American Sisters Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel, Maura Clarke and lay missionary Jean Donovan) were assassinated because of their drive to live out their baptismal call and pursuit for social justice. Many of these Christian witnesses had the opportunity to flee from the violence but decided to stay to accompany the suffering people of God through the smooth and rough roads of their pilgrimage here on earth. So here I was processing to the altar with the symbol of hope around me – children whose ancestors were victims of a terrible crime to humanity perpetrated by the militia in Guatemala, where more than 250,000 civilians (mostly Mayas and Catholics) were massacred between 1960 and 1996.
At the end of that Mass, I was equally moved by the procession after the dismissal. I thought of those whom I encountered during the pilgrimage. Christians who inspired and encouraged me to not only leave after Mass with a “happy feeling” but to go in peace and follow Jesus’ way, even if it involves leaving behind my own comforts in life. I thought of Maryknoll Sister Mary Annel, M.D., who has been called the worst of names during her 20 years in ministry to marginalized people living with HIV/AIDS in El Salvador. I thought of all those priests, catechists and lay leaders whom I met during the pilgrimage and who continue risking everything to proclaim the Gospel of life. In exiting the church in Santiago de Atitlan, I was reminded that not only humans but the whole creation await the glory revealed by Christ. This became evident to me while exiting the front doors when I became mesmerized by the view of the majestic volcano and Lake Atitlán praising the Lord by their beauty.
There is no doubt that last month’s pilgrimage/retreat will continue to help me during my walk with Christ this Lent. It reminds me that self-denial is recognizing God’s accompaniment through the hardships and joys we face on our own pilgrimage that requires placing the common good and Christ at the center of our lives. It is a realization that we encounter our true selves in losing ourselves entirely in Christ and his mission of establishing the reign of God’s peace here on earth.
So I ended the conversation with my friend by informing him that the coffee that I enjoy with much “gusto” reminds me of Santiago de Atitlan and the various coffee plantations that surround the lake. I may not give up coffee this Lent, but have strongly considered drinking mostly Fair Trade coffee in support of my brothers and sisters in the hillsides above Lake Atitlán, Guatemala. I believe that my friend got more than what he bargained for with his curiosity.