Lent As: Hearing the Cry of the Poor
Each year, the Season of Lent is offered to us as a time of renewal. Usually, we take up this Lenten journey as the gift of personal renewal in terms of our relationship with the Lord. Our renewal becomes concrete when it comes down to self-denial which allows us to live our faith more authentically. The alms giving we do helps us express our gratitude and allows us to exercise generosity. However, Lent can also be a time to focus beyond ourselves. It can be a time of renewal that is offered us to hear the cry of the poor and grow in solidarity with them. Ultimately, this is spiritual renewal as well and helps us grow closer to our Lord who tells us that if we wish to love him, we must express that love as love for the least of our brothers and sisters.
How can I make this Lent a time to hear the cry of the poor? It all starts with desire and a few choices. If we recognize a desire to be more attentive to the poor and to grow in affection for and solidarity with them, then it is likely that this is a grace we have received. Many things may have happened to open us to this grace, but it is important to name it and welcome it. Perhaps God has been offering us this grace for some time and preparing us to receive it this Lent. If we don't feel this desire, we can ask for it. We can ask our Lord to help us grow in a desire to hear better the cry of those most in need.
Who are the poor? Who are most in need? Who are most pushed to the margins of neglect and powerlessness? It doesn't take a great social analysis to come up with some immediate answers in my own world and in the global situation today. Listening to the news - locally, nationally, globally - is a beginning. Who appears to be suffering? Who seems to be tremendously burdened? Not all the poor are in the news, but a sensitive scan of the news is a place to start.
The U.S. Jesuit Province Superiors named four major groups that are most deserving of our care in their document, "A Meditation on our Response to the Call of Christ":
"In this light, how can we ignore the fact that those most in need of our solidarity are those who suffer painful hardships? Their misery seems almost inescapable. Many are trapped in poverty. So limited are their opportunities, their poverty has become structurally entrenched. Their lives are severely diminished; their hopes are crushed by a persistent and oppressive poverty that denies to all but the boldest the basics of human dignity and the opportunity to live happy and fulfilled lives. Perhaps the most pressing and painful examples are forced migrants (refugees, migrant workers, the undocumented); inner city populations (racial minorities, the elderly, the homeless, the persistently poor); indigenous peoples at home and abroad; and the globally destitute, more than 800 million people who go to bed hungry each night."
What do I do when I begin to hear the cry of the poor? We tend to not think of the poor very much because to do so can render us sad or feeling "unable to help." But, if we use a time like Lent to try to reflect upon the situation of the poor near us and around the world, then the poor will help us come to know God's special love for them. In this reflection we will discover God's love for us because we will experience a solidarity with the poor. We can become aware of how narrow our concerns are or how self-centered we have become. Reflection upon the situation of the poor will draw us closer to them, helping us understand the mystery of radical dependence on God. Ultimately, our closeness with the poor during Lent will make us more "Christ-like" for he is the one who became completely one with us.
How will my prayer be different during Lent? If we spend Lent reflecting upon the situation of the poor, we will begin to pray differently. We will see not only see their radical dependence upon God but we will find ourselves turning to God on their behalf, before we ask anything of God for ourselves. This kind of prayer purifies our prayer. It helps us pray with a renewed spirit. It frees us from so many of the demands we can place on God, especially for things like comfort or success or just getting things my way. With the poor as our prayer companions, we can surrender more easily and ask God for what really matters - first on their behalf and then for ourselves. Our prayer for ourselves will more freely become a prayer that we might be transformed to be better servants for others, especially conscious of those on the margins of Society. It will ultimately lead us to ask the Lord to help us make our lifestyle more simple. It can lead us to ask to be freed from our dependence upon so many of the benefits of the unjust social structures of our world. Finally, it might lead me to ask for the courage to act against those unjust social structures, even to dismantle them.
Lent spent hearing the cry of the poor starts with awareness, is spent in growing solidarity and leads to deeper compassion and transformative prayer.