I have no memory whatsoever of a year where the daffodils were blooming before Ash Wednesday. As far as late Lenten seasons go, this is the latest I can remember, and honestly, it is kinda messing with my head. This is also the second time in my adult life that I can remember missing Ash Wednesday mass, due to illness. Sunday before Lent, I had a scratching throat as I waited for Cirque to audition for a spot in the city ballet summer intensive programs. By the time we got home to get ready for evening mass, I was miserable.
In previous years I have honestly yearned for a sense of humility as we enter Lent, and since it was again my “draw” of virtue card for the year at our annual spiritual retreat, I thought I was prepared in this category…and then I got sick; the kind of sick where you can’t get out of bed. Sickness is a kind of reality check for the strongest of people, because it taps into the reality of the fact that no matter how many meetings we schedule, or things we accomplish on our calendar, we are really NOT in control here. And by here, I really mean anywhere. We have become such an automated society that the thought of being out of control in any way scares all of us intensely, even those of us who consider ourselves to be working (at least beginning to work) on some kind of spiritual detachment from worldly things. As we get deeper into our spiritual growth, some of us find the approach of Lent a great relief, kind of like the world may find New Year’s resolutions a relief in terms of sparing down, starting over, beginning fresh etc. So even though I am behind in my attempt to be timely, the subject of how to best observe Lent this year has been on my heart for weeks. It would have been posted before Lent, but ironically, I was to begin my Lenten spiritual journey a little earlier than “planned”.
I think it’s important to “clean out the Lent trap” so to speak, and shake things up a bit. I hear over and over again how people are giving up the same thing every year, and my hope is that by all the reading and delving I have done over the years, along with several wonderful priests and spiritual guides who have helped my cause, the Holy Spirit can lead us to really respond to the call to go deeper.
Start by asking yourself the right questions:
- What is my prayer like?
- How often do you pray?
- What do you use to guide your prayer? A prayer guide, scripture, book? (Find a valid Christian/Catholic resource guide to help you. Stay away from “new-age” type literature which may be “healthy” in some sense, but doesn’t explicitly name Christ. That is more aimed at self-improvement, not aimed at deepening a relationship with Jesus).
- Do you create a place and time every day for silence and listening to God?
- Am I addressing God the Father, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit in my prayers? (Maybe try to get to know one a little more this Lent?)
- Am I only asking for things when I pray (“Foxhole praying”)? I should always begin with praise and thanksgiving.
- Where is my faith lacking? Trust in God and His plan for me? Hope in Him and the life after? Love for Him and those He loves? Have I asked Him explicitly for help with this? (One idea is to associate this simple act with another simple act, such as every time I open the frige I ask “Jesus, increase my hope”, or I get in the car I say “God, I trust in You.”
- What habit is keeping me from knowing God more, spending more time in prayer, or going to mass or to pray?
- What are the time wasters in your day? (I like puzzle games, and deleted one yesterday for the start of Lent…I was on level like 270! How many hours went into that??)
- What am I doing that is unhealthy for my spiritual life? (Sometimes I stay up after everyone has gone to bed just to unwind and watch some old movie I have seen twelve times, or a show I have already watched. Later I wished I had done my spiritual reading and gone to bed.)
- Am I examining my conscience every day or even every week? Try praying Psalm 51 every night before bed. One priest told me to pray a new Psalm each day of Lent. Also you can use a Catholic app to help find the right examination of conscience or print one and keep it by your bed.
- When is the last time I asked God to forgive me for my mistakes? We should always be seeking His mercy. It is a never-ending supply that is always available and waiting for us.
THE CHURCH GUIDES US IN THE THREE PILLARS OF LENT: PRAYER, FASTING, AND ALMSGIVING.
- HAVE A GUIDE: Use a Lenten meditation book or other collection of meditations to assist your journey. I personally like the daily reminders on my email from signing up for so many Lenten programs I am already receiving, which guide with short reflections that each have a beautiful little “tilt” to their spirituality. *see below samples
- GO SOMEPLACE NEW: Even though my kids are older now, and some days I have the house to myself, I find that I cannot silence my own brain long enough to let God have his moment in my day. There is so much noise in the air and in my head, that I have to physically implant myself in the front pew of the chapel to shut the world out for a few minutes. It NEVER fails for me as an exercise to remove myself physically from the world for a few minutes, even five minutes, and go into the church and sit and try to listen.
- BUILD A WORLD: I have been flooding my Instagram account with Pope Francis, Catholic Images, Catholic sites, priests I know, and people and sights that put beauty into the world. My kids make fun of me for my lack of “followers” but it is intentional in that it is my sacred space. It’s like the “Happy Book” I made myself during a rough pregnancy; happy images of my family, saints, and holy images that comfort and feel protective to me. You can build a world in a corner of your home, in your closet (See the movie: “War Room”), office, or anyplace you go often that can be a sacred zone to feed your soul every day, when you can’t get to the chapel.
- SING A NEW SONG; If you change up your prayer in any new kind of way, you will feel a greater sense of movement in your spiritual life. I again encourage the change to be under the guidance of a valid and reliable resource that is approved. Here are some that I have found helpful:
Apps: LAUDETE, CATHOLIC CHURCH, CATHOLIC NOVENA APP, CATHOLIC DAILY READINGS, PRAYERS 2000+ (Catholic Prayers by DivineOffice)
Email/websites (search words): Praymorenovenas, Regnum Christi, Zenit, Dynamic Catholic, Focus, Formed, USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops), America Needs Fatima, EWTN
- DO NOT confuse Lent with diet or New Year’s Resolutions. Too many people I know make the mistake of using Lent as an excuse to focus on losing weight, exercising anew, or changing a health habit. The human person is composed of Mental, Spiritual, Emotional, and Physical elements, but if you really want to get to the heart of it, ask yourself “Is this for GOD or for ME?” Are you doing something that you hope will benefit the way you look in the end? It’s always important to take care of yourself, but looking good for Spring Break in your bikini is NOT the idea Jesus went into the desert with for his 40 day fast. If you have been trying, however, to accomplish something that you feel you haven’t had the strength or wherewithall to do, and you feel doing it in the name of Lent will strengthen your resolve because God is at the center of your strength, then great!! Go for it! (“God for it!”) Also, our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. If you feel you have not been treating yourself as such, then it would be a great reason to make your resolution have a healthy tilt! The difference is again, just to look at the heart of what you are trying to do and why.
- Are you doing the same thing you did last year? That isn’t a bad thing either (I have been trying to stack my years’ past with the newer offerings) but you also risk the chance of losing the meaning of what you are doing. “I give up those Girl Scout cookies every year!” Well, that’s nice, but how can you grow with your sacrifice this year? Kick it up a notch. Which leads me to this:
- ADD something spiritual IN ADDITION TO TAKING AWAY something NON-SPIRITUAL. Certainly indulgences (like my little phone game, or my glass of wine) can get in the way of me wasting time, or plunging into a sleepy lag at the end of the day when I have more to do. The church guides us in the Lenten pillar of FASTING. I need to ask myself in addition to giving up a creature comfort or bad habit, WHAT IS GOING TO BRING ME CLOSER TO GOD? If I do not REPLACE that bad habit with a good one, I am not going to instill anything else into my spiritual life, except for maybe a new bad habit! Maybe it’s only me, but I am using my human nature to the fullest with finding the wrong things to fill up my thirst for God.
ALMS GIVING (As acts of penance, charity…) Let’s look at Alms giving in more detail soon, but generally here, we can use it to understand giving to and serving others in a way to share God’s love.
- Volunteer; your parish bulletin has a million and one requests for your time and help. If that doesn’t work, go to a local nursing home and chat with people. Take a neighbor’s dog for a walk when they are sick (thank you sweet Em), cook dinner for a busy friend, pick up trash on your street, just smile at someone you don’t know. Everyone needs that positive personal interaction.
- REAL acts of charity? They are small but MIGHTY.
- When someone is unkind to you, pray for them. Ask God to help you see what He loves about others in the world, especially those whom it is most difficult to understand. (I said small, I didn’t say easy).
- Bite your tongue: not complaining OUT LOUD about something (or even worse, someone) is about the most generous act of kindness people can do in our society right now. Right now. Yes, I am serious. I will be working on this until the day I die probably, but it is always at the top of my list, not just because I am a talker, but because it is SO important. It is really the apex of most virtues. I always have a few books about charity in speech stuffed everywhere in my house and car because I always NEED them so much!
- Remember everyone is suffering through something in their life, an act of MERCY will never be forgotten. Forgive someone. Or ask for the grace to forgive a hurt.
Easter reflections bring such light on our Lenten crosses. The thing I take away from almost every Lenten journey is this; if I am not going to do any of this out of LOVE, with LOVE in my heart, or an effort at having some of the joy I feel when I give a genuine gift to someone I love, I am missing the point. It’s a gift for Him, who died for love of me and you.
What can you attempt for God this Lent OUT OF LOVE for Him? Given FREELY by you with a generous heart? Isn’t that what a real sacrifice is? And if you mess up, show mercy even to yourself and begin again.
“Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” Matthew 9:13