Now that the Mardi Gras season is over, those in the community who are religious-oriented move onto the next phase of their spiritual life with the Lenten season.
Beginning with Ash Wednesday, parishioners of the Catholic and some other faiths attend mass and receive a cross drawn on their forehead with the ashes from a palm burnt on Palm Sunday as a reminder of their human mortality. Thus begins one of the more important seasons on the religious calendar.
Father Dennis John Hayes III, in addition to overseeing Our Lady of the Angels in Waggaman, teaches at the Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans.
Hayes said the Lent season is one where parishioners should think about their lives, spiritual well being and their communities.
"Lent is really a time to kind of slow down. Be a little more reflective and be of a little bit more service to people in this world," Hayes said.
Lent lasts for 40 days from Ash Wednesday until Holy Thursday, which is the last Thursday before Easter.
Hayes said the number of days during the Lent season are important in a few ways.
"We use the 40 days of Lent to remind us of those 40 years of wandering through the desert and receiving the ten commandments and we also use it as a symbol of the 40 days that Jesus spent in the desert where the evil one, Satan, tempted him," Hayes said. "He resisted that temptation and after those 40 days he went into his public ministry."
The tradition is most well known for people giving up a behavior of habit through fasting. Thus many area institutions hold fish fries for those who give up eating red meat, but many are prone to giving up more personal and specific behaviors for the season.
Hayes said the importance of fasting is to remind us that our bodies are more than just an accumulation of physical parts, but are driven by our souls.
"We have a deep, deep hunger in the human being–it is the hunger for meaning and fulfillment and that hunger we tend to try to satisfy with food and drink," Hayes said. "We give up certain things to eat and drink because we are trying to be in touch with the hunger of our soul and our hunger is a deeper hunger than just for food and drink."
Lent, particularly when it comes to fasting, is a form asceticism that includes restraint from desires people would normally give in to.
Hayes said for those who give up more defined personal behavior patterns, he encourages them to give up a behavior during Lent that they would like to extend through the rest of the year.
"Iím of the school of thinking that whatever I do for Lent Iíd like it to be something I do for the long-term. Not just to give up something and not say ĎI canít wait to get back to Easter so I can get back to my old stuff,í" Hayes said. "I think it is better to have a fasting and sustaining attitude in general."
The other two parts of Lent, that may not receive as much as much attention as fasting, are prayer and alms giving.
During the Lent season parishioners are encouraged to increase their communication with God through prayer.
"In prayer we are dialoguing with God, but itís got to be through mediated form. Itís different than just communicating with someone through texting, or faxing, or emailing or calling or Facebook and all that stuff," Hayes said. "We canít do it that way with God."
Believers are encouraged to devote more time to prayer and mediation and to become more attuned to the needs of their soul by doing so.
The third part of Lent is alms giving where believers provide for the needy.
In biblical scriptures, Jesus is to have said it is the believerís responsibility to clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, visit the incarcerated, provide food for the hungry and provide drink for the thirsty.
Hayes said during Lent it is ever more important that parishioners help those in the community who need it the most.
"We do have an obligation to help make this world a better world for those who are hungry, or those who are incarcerated, or for those who are infirm or those who do not have proper housing," he said.
One of the ways people have to give is through the Catholic Charities, which is an arm of the Catholic Church.
Catholic Charities is a social service organization founded in 1910 that provides for those in need not only in the our local communities, but around the world.
Hayes said the month of February is one where priests talk to parishioners about the work Catholic Charities does, however, he said there are other ways of giving alms.
"Giving alms basically means putting your money where your mouth is," Hayes said. "But that is one of the ways we can give alms."
Hayes said he encourages those in the faith to also put their bodies into action to help the less fortunate and that many in his congregation visit inmates in penitentiaries and provide communion for those in hospitals who are ill.
Through the three basic forms of Lent, of fasting, prayer and alms giving, those who are engaged with the season are meant to strengthen their spirituality while at the same time strengthen their communities.
"We are supposed to focus on our spiritual lives and we do that through those ways," Hayes said.
|Father Dennis John Hayes III|