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Preparing for Lent

February 9, 2010

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!

Fasting

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.

Almsgiving

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.

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Comments (12)

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  1. Cynthia BC says:

    I suggested to my husband that if he slogged through the snow to get to Mass this past weekend, he could go to Confession during Lent without any fear of the penance he’d be assigned.

    He didn’t buy it…

    • Susan Timoney says:

      Sometimes, spouses are our best spiritual directors, it is part of the vocation of marriage!

  2. Leonie says:

    some beautiful suggestions for lent! Will be sharing it with a few friends down here in New Zealand…

    My condolances on having to shovel snow! I’m about to head to the beach, have a bbq, play some cricket, and maybe play with our local friendly dolphin 🙂 Looking forward to being in your area later this year and having reversed seasons and my 1st ever white Christmas!

  3. cmah says:

    About the Orthodox Easter sermon: this is the renowned Easter sermon of St. John Chrysostom that is traditionally read from the pulpit at the Easter midnight divine liturgy. It sounds like the parish priest in your story was paraprhasing slightly,but, in accordance with tradition, he was reading from Chrysostom’s sermon.

    • Susan Timoney says:

      That was a test to see how many people recognize the homily, a little later in Lent I plan to share the complete sermon from St. John.!

  4. Maggie Gutierrez says:

    Susan, Thank you for bringing up Lent as it is around the corner. I’ve be doing some shoveling and enjoying the beauty of snow. This scripture passage came to mind:

    “Come now, and let us reason together,” Says the LORD, “Though your sins are as scarlet, They will be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, They will be like wool – Isaiah 1:18

    So in prepraing for Lent I am thinking the snow out there is a reminder to approach God with open hearts and joy, not hiding from his blessings or complaining about the disciplines of Lent. I will have to go out of my comfort zone and seek him. And I may have to use some muscles I have not used in a while. Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving are the basic tools. Silence is my power bar and spiritual reading is the hot soup I enjoy after a good days work.

    • Susan Timoney says:

      I like that analogyof using muscles we haven’t used in sometime and of course the image if snow. Thanks for this addition.

  5. john says:

    Great article. Interesting reading and information. Keep up the good work.

  6. Mike S. says:

    Ah just a little bit ahead of time so I can make that plan you suggest. Thanks for helping me plan ahead! My advent reading was St. Theresa of Avila, Interior Castle and have read the others you suggested a while ago. Got another suggestion?

    Enjoy the snow!

    • susan timoney says:

      How about Dante’s Paradiso or Inferno. Last year I read Blessed Don Marmion’s, Christ the Life of a Soul and I liked that quite a bit. Another favorite at Lent is John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul and finally, Dorothy Days Long Lonliness which is the story of her conversion.

      • Mike S. says:

        Thanks, Don Marmion’s the winner. It has been awhile since I read him. John of the Cross, not sure I’m there yet.
        Peace,
        Mike