Maybe, like me, you had to do a little shoveling this weekend! My neighbors were out of town and because I actually like to shovel snow, I shoveled their steps and walk, wondering if I could bank this little work of mercy for Lent! Are you like me, often approaching the spiritual life like it is an account with God the banker to which you make withdrawals and deposits? Pondering all of this, I remembered a story that changed the way I think about Lent.
When I was in graduate school, I returned to class after Easter break and my professor shared with us the Easter Sunday homily he heard in an Orthodox parish. Following the Opening Prayer, The priest greeted people by saying “For those of you who have kept the Lenten fast, who have been faithful in prayer, who are prepared to enter into the celebration of our Lord’s resurrection, rejoice, this is the day the Lord has made.” The priest continued, “for those of you who are here and wish that you had been better about keeping the fast, about praying, about works of mercy, fear not and rejoice, this is the day the Lord has made.” And the priest continued, “for those of you who let Lent pass you by, for those who may not have thought much about our Lord since last Easter and are here today—and here there was a pregnant pause—rejoice and be glad for this is the day the Lord has made for you!” Father said you could almost here a gasp in the congregation—is this for real?
He was, as the Brits like to say “spot on.” Salvation cannot be earned, it is pure self-gift. The lesson for me is that a well-spent Lent does not gain us points. A perfect fast or 100% attendance at daily Mass, or perfect record of an act of kindness a day is not the point. Teresa of Avila had an insight that sets a good tone for Lent. She writes of sitting in a chapel, gaze fixed on the crucifix and being overwhelmed by the realization of how much she took for granted having been saved by our Lord. How utterly oblivious she was to the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Make a Plan
These two stories present a challenge. They challenge us to decide that we are going to spend Lent exploring the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection, opening ourselves up to the awesome mercy and love of God. What, this Lent, will help us to enter more fully and completely into the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection? The Church suggests prayer, fasting and almsgiving as focal points for consideration. These disciplines open up some interesting possibilities. I want to offer a few suggestions:
Prayer: More is better
Carve out more time for prayer. The Archdiocese of Washington is asking every parish on every Wednesday night (beginning February 24) in Lent to have a Holy Hour and the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Consider blocking out some time on Wednesday evenings to enjoy the quiet of contemplation in front of the Blessed Sacrament. Not sure how to pray in a contemplative way? Click here for some help www.adw.org.
The Wuerl Plan
In a homily, Archbishop Wuerl told the story of a parishioner he met who desired to make daily Mass a part of his daily routine. He was having a hard time keeping his commitment because his days were full and busy and it just wasn’t working. Rather than giving up, the man decided that he would make the commitment to go to Mass one day a week for a year and in the second year, add a second day and so on, so that in seven years, he would be attending daily Mass. The Archbishop commented on how reasonable that plan seem to be for a busy lay person. If it is good enough for Archbishop Wuerl, it may be good enough for you!
I do believe we have lost the art of fasting. I use to convince myself that I really couldn’t fast for 12 or 24 hours and not feel ill, light-headed, or cranky. To be sure many people are not able to do this but I have learned to test my limits and found if I put my mind to it and make it prayerful, I am able to fast. Fasting is one of the oldest practices of the Judeo-Christian tradition. One author speaks of it as a “response to a sacred moment, not a way to get what we want from God.” Fasting is linked to Lent because Lent is a period in which we recognize our sinfulness and how unaware we are of God’s enormous capacity for forgiveness and mercy. Fasting is a form of prayer that allows us to focus our minds on the reality that ultimately only God can satisfy our hunger and thirst. A traditional fast is to consume nothing but water (and for some not even water) for 12 or 24 hours. If this is not a healthy choice for you, a more common fast is smaller and/or fewer meals. Choose a fast and keep it.
The kind of self-giving love that Jesus so perfected in his death was the culmination of a life in which he chose at every turn to be generous, loving, kind, to freely give more and more of himself so that when his Father asked to give his very life, he could say “yes,” as did his mother before him, and Moses before her and Abraham before him. Almsgiving is the practice of freely giving of our time, talent and treasure. In many cases, it does not even require that we leave home to do it.
And One More…
I suggest one more practice—spiritual reading. There are so many Catholic classics that can enrich and nourish our spiritual life and bring us into a deeper relationship with the Lord. I want to suggest three classics and one contemporary book that is tailor made for Lent.
Augustine: The Confessions
The Confessions is readable and timeless as Augustine writes honestly about desiring to love God with his whole mind and heart, but just not ready to make the changes in his daily life that this requires.
Francis De Sales: The Devout Life
The Devout Life, written in the early 17th century, is one of the first books that looks at the spiritual life of the lay person as something distinct from the spiritual life of priests and religious. It is Francis, the Bishop’s attempt to reflect on the call to holiness in the midst of the world.
Teresa of Avila: The Way of Perfection
Though The Interior Castle is Teresa’s greatest work, it is not so easy to read. The Way of Perfection was written for her sisters in the style of a teaching manual and so it is straightforward as it breaks open the discipline of the spiritual life
Mary Margaret Funk: Tools Matter for Practicing the Spiritual Life
Sister Mary Margaret is a Benedictine Sister who has been a teacher and prioress. In this book she examines fasting, The Jesus Prayer and Ceaseless Prayer—all good Lenten practices.