A SURE SIGN of a society, or indeed a person, losing any real moral compass, or a real sense of right and wrong, is the use of the phrase ‘dogooder’ in a pejorative or negative sense. It’s always a snide and nasty expression, reflecting not only moral ignorance but of hidden envy and guilt. Lent, which began last Wednesday, is a challenge to such a perverted outlook; for one thing it is above all about a call to all of us to do good, to be dogooders. The traditional ways in which we all are asked to do this are very simple and straightforward: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
For some prayer is the easiest thing to do more of in Lent. We have a lot of services in church during Lent; apart from Sunday and weekday Masses we have Stations of the Cross on Fridays and other acts of worship which are well supported. Remember that our church building is open for at least 12 hours a day, an important act of witness itself; it is well lit and usually warm; the Blessed Sacrament is reserved prominently, there is Exposition more or less every day after Mass and a number of popular statues. On Ash Wednesday hundreds of you came to Mass. Lent is a good time for thinking about acts of worship, perhaps in new ways, or simply about how we pray.
The picture here is of the annual act of witness for peace organised by Christian peace groups at the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall on Ash Wednesday, when the walls are signed with ash. Just as we are called to repentance when we receive ashes in church on that day, so in this act the country and government are called to repentance over defence policies based on the intent to use wicked and immoral weapons of mass destruction (hence the words ‘Trident is sin’).
Of course a key aspect of prayer and worship in Lent is going to confession. For many of us fasting and abstinence is the hardest thing to do in Lent. We are so used to regular eating times that going without food, even for a short period, can make us unhinged and irritable; we also live within a culture where instant wish-fulfilment is promoted all the time, so to give something up voluntarily is challenging and unintelligible to many. Fasting and abstinence exposes the emptiness of consumerism. Traditionally we do these things for three reasons: first, as an act of repentance for our sins; second, to help us be less attached to or dependent on certain things; and third, to show solidarity with those in our country and in the rest of the world who go without food, not voluntarily but because they have no choice, and to help them (next Friday’s CAFOD Fast day links these things, when we’re asked to give something up and give the proceeds to help those in need).
Fasting and abstinence can help us in other ways too: Catholic teaching in relation to the world in which we live entails asking about the provenance of the food we eat, and also challenges us to waste less food or drink. Food and drink are gifts from God, examples of the beauty of the created order – but like everything else we are only stewards, not absolute owners, and we are expected to act responsibly and according to the moral law. There is one aspect of the practice of fasting and abstinence which does relate positively to contemporary culture – the desirability, for many of us, to be fitter and to lose weight!
The third way in which we try to ‘do’ Lent is almsgiving, that is, giving to those in need, what we conventionally call the ‘works of mercy’. In Christianity, and in many other world faiths, this is not something we do to make us feel good – it is a religious obligation. Indeed, the early Church fathers teach us that we don’t give charitably simply to help those in need, but to redress injustice, that is the inequality which exists between those who are poor and others. Charitable giving is a big part of the life of the parish – we give generously to CAFOD (the end of this week and next weekend), many charities and groups which make appeals, other agencies which we are asked to support by the bishops, the London Catholic Worker house and many others.
Moreover in Beckenham we have in the High Street a number of charity shops. Giving to charity is topical at the moment because of the revelations last week about OXFAM workers in Haiti; of course, charities, like churches, often attract those who prey on the vulnerable and need to have proper policies to protect people and should be properly investigated when things go wrong. But we should be aware of the hate campaign against so many charities led by the gutter press and the negative attitudes of some politicians towards aid programmes for poor countries: much of this is motivated by selfishness. So there’s a lot to do in Lent – so that we can become dogooders.