A Lenten Reflection: Keeping Lent Simple

Image of Jesus on the crossWhen I was younger, I approached Lent like the new year. I made a series of “resolutions” I would carry out during the season, such as reading the Bible more, reading through the Church Fathers, putting money in a jar for the poor every time I swore, or avoiding eating any meat, or all four. I remember when I first discovered Lent as a non-Catholic in 2000, I gave up meat for all of Lent, and I was very concerned because I thought the fine folks at the Ohio University Dining Hall accidentally gave me chicken nuggets instead of my requested fish nuggets (good thing I didn’t give up trans fats for Lent!).

I found that these disciplines were good, and that my list of Lenten goals and “giving up” did usually get accomplished, but I didn’t necessarily come out of Lent closer to God for it. I maybe came out a little healthier, or perhaps more familiar with the Church Fathers. Both are good things. However, in the last few years I have thought about the value of keeping my Lenten discipline extremely simple. Picking one theme, something that brings me closer to God and neighbor, and just focusing on that, giving something simple all of my attention.

This year I have decided on generosity. The entire life, death, and resurrection of Jesus demonstrates the generosity of God, who became one of us to save us, even though throughout all of human history we humans turned our back on his efforts at reaching out to us.

My dad jokingly calls me “Betty,” the name of my grandma, who was tight. She grew up in the Great Depression and this affected her view of giving to others. She didn’t exactly have an abundance mentality. They probably haven’t found a gene for tightness, but if there is one, I may have inherited it.

I am naturally frugal. Even now, I keep the heat in my house ridiculously low, preparing my daughter to comfortably tolerate any future ice age or apocalypse that lacks heat. I have set a goal to do an act of generosity a day that I normally wouldn’t have done. It could be giving extra time to a student or even playing with my daughter when I have a lot of other work to do.

And, I am praying the Prayer for Generosity of Saint Ignatius Loyola before bed.

Sometimes simple things can have a large effect. The effect for me so far has been for me to see how great generosity feels, and how much a little generosity to others can have a big result, in their lives, and in mine. One person’s generosity of time or money can spread through a community and impact it positively. I am not saying a few extra minutes with my daughter, or extra patience with a student will transform my community to become more like Christ, but it will definitely help.

Taking Lent Beyond Easter

Jesus carrying the cross by El GrecoI have always enjoyed Lent, even the fasting side of it. It’s much easier to be appreciative of the feasting when we’ve also experienced the fasting. However, we must never forget the main purpose of Lent, which is to become spiritually stronger and a better Christian overall.

So, as Lent winds down, it may be helpful to look at ways you can take your Lenten experience beyond Easter and actually integrate it into your life. While I don’t think the fasting should continue through Easter (Easter is a time of celebration, so celebrate), the spiritual ideals we’ve practiced certainly should. Here are a few ways to integrate your Lenten experience into your everyday spiritual life.

First, write down what you got out of Lent 2013 and what practices worked to make you a better person. I have had many fruitful Lenten experiences and guess what? I don’t even remember the details! So, before Lent is over, keep a log of helpful practices, thoughts, and ideas. Then, periodically throughout the year, go back to your journal. Make sure you continue what has been a blessing to you.

Second, return to fasting when Easter is over. While the Catholic Church requires Ash Wednesday and Good Friday as fast days, there is nothing stopping you from fasting other days of the year (although Sundays and other holy days are always feasts). Fasting is a good practice that we too often forget outside of Lent. Pick a day throughout the week a few other times a year and fast. I try to fast at least once in the summer, winter, and fall (Lent falls in the spring).

Finally, keep it simple. I have always found the simplicity of Lent to be very spiritually satisfying. It forces me to be a little more rugged and sparse. The lives of most people are chaotic and leave little time for rest and contemplation. Whatever your Lenten discipline, your life was likely more simplistic and more focused on your spiritual life. Make an effort to keep this going.

I wish you a blessed rest of Lent and beyond. Whatever you’ve accomplished, I pray you can continue it throughout the rest of the year and be continually serving God and having a blessed spiritual life.

Pope Francis An Example Of Lenten Humility

Popr FrancisWhen Pope Francis emerged onto the balcony at the Vatican, I didn’t know much about him. I have been pretty busy and haven’t had time to personally research every “papabile” cardinal. Immediately after Jorge Mario Bergoglio, I began researching him. What I found was a humble guy, who, in my opinion, is the right person for the job.

Right or wrong, the Church’s reputation throughout the world is pretty negative at the moment. I think many outsiders see the Pope as that “rich white guy” who lets priests do bad things, who tells people to do one thing, while doing something else. Again, I don’t think this is the case, but as we say in psychology, “perception is reality.”

The humility and “down to earth” nature of Pope Francis is just what the Church needs, and quite frankly, it should come as no surprise since he is reallt imitating Christ in the process. I understand the “beauty of holiness” and the sacramental nature of reality. I too am enriched by the giant cathedrals of Europe and the ceremony of the Church. However, I also know that all of this has to lead us back to one person: Jesus. And Jesus reminded us about the importance of simplicity and the danger of attachment to possessions.

When Pope Francis carries his own bags, asks a blessing from the crowd before giving his, and his custom of taking the bus instead of a limo, reminds me of what Jesus would do. It also reminds me of what we are trying to do this Lent.

I have no predictions of this papacy. I am impressed with the humility of Pope Francis and hope that we can all use this as an inspiration for Lent, as we imitate the “servant of the servants of God.”

An Idea For Lent: Treat People Better

If you look at the life of Jesus, he reserved his indignation for a few particular types of people, mainly the Pharisees. The Pharisees, chief interpreters of the Mosaic law during the period, made people’s lives more difficult and burdensome, by emphasizing little rules that the Pharisees themselves didn’t even bother to follow.

I think many of us Christians forget this. Jesus made people’s lives better. He healed them, fed them, and spiritually liberated them from oppressive rules that hindered them. A great example is when his disciples ate grain on the Sabbath. Jesus reminded his accusers that the Sabbath rest was made for us, not us for it. In other words, following all sorts of crazy rules about the Sabbath pretty much gets rid of its original point: to provide mankind with a day without work.

I worry that sometimes Lent can become a time for all of us to get a little crabbier and meaner. After all, we are denying ourselves things, and going without food in some cases. The great saints recognized that Lent is not about diet or even food, but about leading us to love God – and neighbor – more perfectly. If our Lenten disciplines do not lead us to become more loving, and more like Christ, then they are a waste of time, no different than trying out Slim-Fast or any other restrictive diet.

I suggest remembering the person of Jesus this Lent, particularly he genuine humanity. Yes, he was fully God as well, but let’s not forget that as a true human, Jesus treated people right. He celebrated with them, and wept with them. He met people where they were, and aside from his dealings with Pharisees, he always recognized that people are more sick than lost, in need in compassion, not judgment.

I am not suggesting that I have everything figured out, and this is just as much a call for me to improve as it is to our readers. May everyone continue to have a blessed Lenten season 2013.

Pray For The Future Pope

Pope Leo the GreatRight now there is a lot of speculation about which cardinal will  become pope. Honestly, I haven’t really been following the whole thing. I am left to trust the Holy Spirit at this point. I am not trying to sound holier-than-thou, by suggesting this.

The reason is that I honestly feel the Church needs a special kind of leader right now, and as a human, I would have difficulty choosing the right man for the job! The Church is plagued with scandals, and the morale of the laity is pretty low. I think Benedict has tried hard and implemented some good reforms, but one man cannot effectively get rid of the rot, at least not immediately.

I love the Church and am not suggesting God has abandoned us! I am suggesting that the Holy Spirit will choose the right man for the job. Whatever we do, we must pray for the new pope, and the cardinals as they choose him. This is especially important during this Lenten season. Please check out our prayer for a new pope.

Renew Your Lenten Discipline

A statue of JesusMany people get really excited about their Lenten discipline on Ash Wednesday and it continues through the first week or so of Lent. But, by the second week or a little later, perhaps the original excitement has faded. Then, your plan to give up sweets or to do an act of charity each day has pretty much fallen by the wayside. Basically, for many people in Lent, goal ideas meet reality. And, reality isn’t as exciting. But, just because you get off the track early, doesn’t mean you can’t recover. Here are a few tips to renew your Lenten discipline.

First, don’t beat yourself up. A lot of people I talk to tell me that they start by cheating on their goals a little bit, then just stop doing it altogether. In many cases, that is a result of guilt or shame over failing to follow through. However, remember that the purpose of Lent is to grow spiritually stronger. Think of it as training. Sometimes we fail while  we train. Remember the purpose of Lent and don’t let the guilt make you give up. Which brings us to the second tip…

If you give up the discipline, even for days (or weeks), it’s perfectly fine to start over. Just because you’ve eaten five giant snickers bars doesn’t mean you can’t spend the rest of Lent following your chosen fast. While forty days of fasting is ideal, it’s still better to follow your goals for twenty five days than five (or none). So, get back on the wagon and finish your fast, even if you’ve not been terribly successful since the beginning.

Third, remember that prayer is the foundation for all spiritual disciplines. We can’t lose track of that during our Lenten fast. So, if you haven’t made prayer your foundation throughout Lent, you’ll be much more likely to fail at the other things you’re attempting. If you haven’t, add prayer to your list of disciplines. Try the liturgy of the hours, a great resource, especially morning and evening prayer.

So, best of luck keeping your Lenten discipline, even if you have to start over. It’s worth it to renew your spiritual discipline because you are training to create a better relationship with God and to live a more spiritually satisfying life.

Lent is Not A Diet

cup of coffeeA good Orthodox friend of mine always reminds people “Lent is not a diet.” And he is right.

For many, Lent is about making fairly small dietary changes. All Catholics are expected to give up meat on Fridays (the flesh of warm blooded animals), and others make their own changes, like giving up sweets or coffee. And there is nothing wrong with this. But it isn’t about going on a diet. While consuming Omega-3 fats from fish is healthy, we don’t avoid meat on Fridays simply to boost our brain power.

Lent is about becoming more like Christ, cultivating the fruits of the Spirit. So, if you are not eating meat, but a total unloving jerk, then you are missing the point. I know some Catholics that go “all out” during Lent, and the result is that they are messes by the end of Lent, which is to say, they get the “diet” part down, but not the “become more like Christ” part.

Lent is not a diet. Lent is a time to become more like Christ. If your Lenten disciplines are about calories, animal flesh, etc, and don’t go beyond that, I suggest doing some introspection and change your plans.