Preparing for Lent

DesertSo much of life as a Catholic is lived in anticipation.  In the Dominican Rite liturgical calendar, we are in a time of preparing for Lent, which, of course, is a time of preparing for Easter.  Are you ready?

Lent is a unique season that invites us to deepen our relationship with God by following His Son into the desert.  Jesus spent 40 days in the desert fasting and praying before being tempted by Satan, temptations He resisted.  Afterward, the angels came and ministered to Him.  From the earliest times of the Church, Christians have been drawn to life in the desert as a means of growing closer to God and following in Christ’s footsteps.  In the silent desolation, we come face to face with our own frailties and weaknesses, and we are better able to hear the voice of God.

Today, most of us cannot leave our jobs, our families, and other daily responsibilities for a 40-day desert retreat.  On the other hand, it is easy to use this as an excuse to avoid “desert experiences” that would help us detach from those things that keep us from God and true happiness.  The Church gives us three tools to help us grow in our spiritual life: fasting, prayer, and almsgiving.  Like three legs on a stool, when used properly and in balance, they work together in our lives to help us grow in virtue and holiness.

Prayer.  This leg on our stool seems so obvious, but it’s often neglected.  Our lives are busy, full of distractions, so it’s easy to let prayer be pushed to the back burner.  Lent provides us with an opportunity to refocus our lives and reprioritize our time.  The Eucharist, as source and summit of our faith, is the perfect place to begin and many people aim to attend Mass daily, especially during Lent. 

Lent also provides us a wonderful opportunity to discover anew the mercy of Jesus in the sacrament of reconciliation, also known as the sacrament of penance, or confession.  Pope Benedict XVI encourages us in this sacrament with this:

“Let us trust in the Spirit’s power to inspire conversion, to heal every wound, to overcome every division, and to inspire new life and freedom. How much we need these gifts! And how close at hand they are, particularly in the Sacrament of Penance!  The liberating power of this sacrament, in which our honest confession of sin is met by God’s merciful word of pardon and peace, needs to be rediscovered and reappropriated by every Catholic. To a great extent, the renewal of the Church in America and throughout the world depends on the renewal of the practice of Penance and the growth in holiness which that sacrament both inspires and accomplishes.”

If you haven’t been to confession in a while or you don’t go regularly, Jesus is inviting you back, waiting for you.  There are many resources, and especially your priest, can help you make a good examination of your conscience and confession. 

A prayer dear to the Church and the Dominicans is the Rosary.  It is a powerful, contemplative, Christ-centered prayer.  There are many apps, websites, and books at your local Catholic bookstore that will help you learn how to pray the Rosary and provide meditations to help you be less distracted and enter more deeply into the mysteries.  One wonderful resource is the Rosary Center.

There are many other devotions and practices that may be incorporated more fully into a person’s prayer life – holy hours, stations of the cross, liturgy of the hours are just a few.  But I want to briefly mention two more: One is the ancient practice of praying the Scriptures, or lectio divina, the other is particularly special to Dominicans – study.

Lectio divina, or divine reading, is the practice of slowing reading Scripture (or other spiritual reading), meditating on it, and allowing the Holy Spirit to lead you into deeper contemplation.  It can be done anywhere, so long as you are in a quiet and comfortable place, with minimal distractions.  A good introduction to the practice may be found here

This Lent would also be a great time to embrace study as part of your spiritual disciplines, as this is also the Year of Faith.  Materials you might read and study include the Catechism, writings by and about saints, encyclicals and church documents.  Catholic Culture has a great suggestion for a Lenten education and reading program: pick something for the mind, something for the soul, and something for the heart. 

Something for the mind encompasses learning more about the faith – the Catechism, church history, encyclicals, and so on.  Something for the soul is meant to provide deeper spiritual guidance, such as writings by the saints.  Something for the heart is inspirational reading – biographies of Jesus and the saints are a good example.  Two of my favorite Lenten reads actually come from the East: “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” by John Climacus and “The Way of a Pilgrim.”  Two other favorites are “Fire Within” by Fr. Thomas DuBay and “The Pursuit of Happiness – God’s Way: Living the Beatitudes” by Servais Pinckaers, OP.  Another suggestion may be the “Diary of St. Maria Faustina”, as the Sunday after Easter is Divine Mercy Sunday.

Fasting.  The purpose of fasting is not simply to deny ourselves food.  Rather, we deny ourselves food in order to discipline our bodily appetites, acknowledge “man does not live by bread alone,” and open ourselves more fully to the Holy Spirit.  To simply deny ourselves food, or certain foods, without embracing the opportunity to grow in the spiritual life is to diet, not fast.  So, for example, when it comes time to eat and you are fasting, instead of continuing with your work, grumbling about the loss of the meal, take a moment to offer up your hunger and pray.

There are other things that can keep us from God, which we may be called to give up during Lent.  Common ones are internet, television, and other media.  These are often activities take time and attention away from God and our loved ones.  Or perhaps you have a habit of stopping by a coffee shop or eating out for lunch during the work week.  Instead of going out, you could bring coffee or lunch from home and donate the money you saved to charity that provides food for the poor.  This leads us to the third means of growing in imitation of Jesus – almsgiving.

Almsgiving.  Jesus told us we are to love our neighbors as ourselves and whatsoever we do to the least of our brethren, we do to Him.  We are called to follow God in being good stewards and generous with our time, talent and treasure.  Every good thing we have, whether possessions or talents, is a gift from God.  Those gifts are meant to be shared with others.  Jesus warned what happens to those who selfishly hoard their blessings with the parable of the rich fool, found at Luke 12:16-21:

Then he told them a parable. “There was a rich man whose land produced a bountiful harvest.  He asked himself, ‘What shall I do, for I do not have space to store my harvest?’ And he said, ‘This is what I shall do: I shall tear down my barns and build larger ones. There I shall store all my grain and other goods and I shall say to myself, “Now as for you, you have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry!”’

But God said to him, ‘You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?’ Thus will it be for the one who stores up treasure for himself but is not rich in what matters to God.”

Each one of us is called to live a poverty of spirit.  Some are called to a radical living out of poverty as vowed religious.  But that does not exempt the rest of us from embracing a spirit of poverty.  When we embrace poverty, we are free to live simply because we know that our needs are provided for by God.  We are more easily able to put our riches at God’s disposal, for His glory and work.  Poverty in this sense is simply detachment from worldly goods.  If we are not detached from these goods, we become their slaves – we worry about them, become distressed if they are damaged or stolen, and we hoard them for fear of losing them.  

This does not just affect us as individuals; it affects the entire body of Christ.  We need each other – the body of Christ is not complete if one or more of its members hold back the gifts they’ve been given.  It is as if your foot is asleep.  It doesn’t work properly and you have to adapt until it wakes up.  In the same way, the body of Christ needs the other members and works best when we are aligned with the head, Jesus, and what He is directing us to do.  If a member finds itself injured or in need, then in charity, other members are called upon to assist.  When we give to those in need, we are responding to an invitation from Jesus to participate in building the Kingdom – what we give to those in need, we are giving to Jesus Himself.

In the next week, spend some time praying about how God might be asking you to grow closer to Him through prayer, fasting and almsgiving.  What does His Lenten plan for you look like?  Do you have any ideas for Lenten practices that you or your family have or will embrace?  Suggestions for devotions or reading materials?  Please feel free to share!

For me, as part of my Lenten plan, I will be spending more time in prayer for you.  I will be remembering you in my prayers and with certain other sacrifices.  If you have specific intentions I may also remember, please let me know; you may post it in a comment here, or drop me an e-mail.  I pray God’s grace be upon you as we enter the desert of Lent and look toward the glory of Easter.

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