Today is Ash Wednesday, also known as the beginning of Lent on the Western calendar.
Actually the season isn’t called “Lent;” its real name is “Quadragesima.” But when Christianity came to the English, the English decided not to use the standard names and made up their own instead (hence “Lent,” “Easter,” “Hell,” “Whitsunday,” and so forth). So if you’re ever curious why there are so many “Easter is Pagan” memes around a certain time of year, that’s literally why it happens.
For me, I’m not too concerned about the name. I’m more concerned with what the season can mean to a Catholic magician.
For those of us familiar with the season, exoterically it’s a time of fasting and prayer, with almsgiving mentioned as another discipline of the time but not always practiced (the custom of “giving something up for Lent” may be derived from this).
I’ve explained the rules for Fasting and Abstinence elsewhere on this blog, covering both pre- and post-1966 practices, and will refer you to that post for more information.
Prayer should be equally obvious, and since my system of “Seven Keys of Effective Prayer” is well-known to most regular THAVMA readers, it needn’t detain us here.
Almsgiving is an interesting practice to assign to Lent, as it should be undertaken every day of the year (ditto for prayer!). The emphasis on it during this season seems contrived to me, much like how thrift stores tend to see an uptick in donations toward the end of December, because people are looking for a tax write-off (I saw this with my own eyes 20 years ago, when I worked for a donation center).
Yet for all the things we can say, both positive or negative, the period of Lent is ideal for the practicing Catholic magician.
Getting Back to Basics
While the emphasis on Lent is often penance and negativity, the underlying intention matches one of removing clutter and accretions from our lives. One evidence we can see or this is in the ceremonies at the end of Lent (the Triduum), where the oils, baptismal water, etc. are replaced and the sun rises over a new everything on Easter Sunday. This is a time conducive to radical cleansing and renewal, when we give ourselves pause to take stock of our lives and ask “Is this (person, practice, objective) good for me? Is this going to help me get where I want to be physically and spiritually? Or is this going to hold me back or get me into trouble in some area of my life?”
This is the beauty of getting back to basics, whether those “basics” mean the Rosary, “sit and breathe” style of meditation, the LRP, or whatever the most basic form of your practice may be. It takes you back to a simpler time, before you added what extra practices you may now do, or extra responsibilities in your life, and gives you the chance to look over them with a state of detachment, comparing them to your actual goals and evaluating whether these “extras” are helping you get there.
Fasting is a part of going back to basics, in that it regulates your food intake and reminds you to be conscious of what you’re eating. While no specific rules exist for what kinds of food (outside days of abstinence, of course!), ideally the food consumed during this time should be of a simple and unelegant character.
This doesn’t mean you have to go overboard. For example, my first assignment after ordination was providing sacraments for a small Franciscan friary. Every Friday, the brothers’ supper would be microwaved fish sticks! I actually lived there for about two months, and the point came where I’d sneak out on Friday afternoons to get a burger every now and then. The moral of the story here is that you don’t want to force yourself to go more hardcore than you can realistically handle, because the resulting repression can cause you to break your intention entirely.
Rather, go for food that’s simple and with light seasonings. While I don’t believe Escoffier’s claim that “too much seasoning can damage the health,” I’ve found that going light on the sugar, caffeine, and capsaicin be more conducive to developing one’s spiritual and psychic faculties. Which is a shame, because I love spicy foods!
Back to the food. Make sure you can handle the taste, but not too luxurious, because it’s a time of penance and giving up luxuries. Calorie count should be enough to sustain your day-to-day activities but in no wise should eating be taken to excess. If you’ve been telling yourself you want to start eating healthier, this is a good time to adjust your diet and give your body time to adapt to the new style of eating.
Of course, every day of the year should be a day of prayer. However, every season of the year can indicate a different emphasis in one’s prayers. The pre-Vatican II liturgy is intimately connected with the cycles of nature and agrarian life (something seen most prominently in Ember Days and Rogations), though perhaps with more subtlety than more modern attempts like the Neopagan “Wheel of the Year” (which, though an attempt at reconnecting with nature, is still the product of an industrial society; the pre-Vatican II liturgical calendar is more subtle precisely because it evolved in the context of an agrarian society with no need for “re-connection”).
I’ve stated in sermons that Advent – which begins after the harvest is finished – is a time of preparation for manifestation, contemplation on the Four Last Things, the Four Elements, and the Four Keys of the Magus (Scire, Velle, Audere, Tacere); that Christmas is given to manifestation and watching out for side-effects of manifestation; Epiphany for growth; and Septuagesima for contemplating the Theological Virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity and the Solas as understood correctly. During Lent our attention goes to pruning the tree of what we’ve manifested, removing any unwanted or potentially-damaging accretions that may have gathered along the way, and directing its growth in a more positive direction as we head toward the Next Level of manifestation in Easter.
Absolutely none of what I said above is mandatory, but it’s something I’ve found helpful.
Following these cycles, along with their place in the yearly cycle of seedtime and harvest, animals in breeding and giving birth, and humanity in our cycle of infancy, adolescence, adulthood, and old age, we can structure and direct our prayer lives to speak to the most relevant aspects of each time or season, finding new depth in these subjects as each passing year brings new layers of meaning. The Collects and Readings of the Missal are the ideal place to start with developing such a prayer practice, and in this sense Lent is unique among all the other seasons of the Church Year, because Lent is the only season in the Proper of the Time to have assigned propers (antiphons, prayers, and readings) for every single weekday, not just Sundays and whatever special feastdays happen to fall in between.
The word “almsgiving” is commonly understood as “giving to those in need,” and can adequately be defined as “giving of goods or services out of a motive of charity or mercy.” The Catholic Encyclopedia tells us the “obligation of almsgiving is complementary to the right of property,” and Pope Leo XIII tells us about property:
The chief and most excellent rule for the right use of money is one the heathen philosophers hinted at, but which the Church has traced out clearly, and has not only made known to men’s minds, but has impressed upon their lives. It rests on the principle that it is one thing to have a right to the possession of money and another to have a right to use money as one wills. Private ownership, as we have seen, is the natural right of man, and to exercise that right, especially as members of society, is not only lawful, but absolutely necessary.
– (Rerum Novarum, n. 22. Emphasis mine.)
What this means is that we have the God-given right to make money and own property, but that right to ownership does not exempt us from caring about those less fortunate than we. This does not mean that government has a God-given right to steal any part of our paychecks, or to interfere with he markets any more than the minimum necessary to ensure a level playing field. It does mean that the individual has an obligation to share a part of their time, talent, or treasure according to their ability to do the most good.
My point in the above isn’t political, but relates to spiritual reward: there’s no spiritual merit if you only give because government steals it from you at gunpoint, nor is there any sacrifice in advocating government to steal from those better off than you. The merit comes only when you give of your own free will and for the right reasons, and the sacrifice only when you give of what belongs to you and no one else.
That said, almsgiving is also sometimes performed as a sort of penance. Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Legrange explains this as a form of combating one’s Predominant Fault:
It is also highly proper to impose a sanction, or penance, on ourselves each time we fall into this defect. This penance may take the form of a prayer, a moment of silence, an exterior or an interior mortification. It makes reparation for the fault and satisfaction for the penalty due it. At the same time we acquire more circumspection for the future. Thus many persons have cured themselves of the habit of cursing by imposing on themselves the obligation of giving an alms in reparation each time they fail.
– (The Three Ages of the Interior Life, Chapter 22)
So what you can do in this regard is contemplate during your day: Am I using my time, talents, or treasure to help my neighbor? How can I better use what I have? Is what I’m doing now good enough? And other such related questions. The idea behind almsgiving is based on authentic love of neighbor (just as prayer is authentic love of God, and fasting is rooted in authentic love of self), and since the relationship to God, self, and neighbor are interconnected, you’ll find that calibrating one tends to create a “ripple effect” in the others as well.
Ultimately, these disciplines during Lent are the same for the magician as for the pew-sitter, the reason being that the technology is available to all; the difference is that the magician is more likely to take initiative and use that technology for spiritual advantage. Yet just because it’s available to layman, priest, and magician alike doesn’t mean it’s any less valuable. I made great progress in Lent of 2018 by following the fasting rules to the letter (which in turn encouraged me to keep up my spiritual practices), and if a schlub like me can do it, then the Lord knows you can do it, too!