For many people, the annual appearance of Lent can be like a reminder of our failures to do something really good in the spiritual life; each year, we have such good intentions – and each year, we look back and see how much better we might have done had we really put our hearts into it.
One of the issues is finding something truly worthwhile to actually doduring the season of Lent – the easy option is to give up chocolate or say an extra prayer each day. But as with most things in life, the more we put in, the more we get out.
So we need to find something that has real value, something that is achieveable for each of us (bearing in mind that every person is different, as are their abilities), and something we will continue to do rather than stopping after a few days.
The Church demands of each of us prayer, fasting and almsgiving – generally, and also at particular points within Lent. Theses are the basics. If we are serious about making Lent count, then we need to build upon this basic foundation.
The suggestions which follow may help you to do something worthwhile this Lent.
If you cannot undertake them all – remember, every one is different – then try to do one or two, but do them consistently and to the very best of your ability. It is better to do one thing well than three things poorly.
May the Lord grant each of us grace to make this Lent a holy and fruitful season, for ourselves and for others. May He inspire us to pray and to do good works, giving of ourselves and of our talents, according to His divine will.
Prayer is an absolute essential during Lent – and every other day of the year, also. Prayer is the bridge between God and man, our repsonse to His invitiation – for it is He Who invites us to pray, not we who initiate the conversation. Saint Thérèse of Lisieux called prayer –
“a simple glance darted upwards to Heaven; it is a cry of gratitude and of love in the midst of trial as in the midst of joy! In a word, it is something exalted, supernatural, which dilates the soul and unites it to God”.
Sometimes it is easy to pray – but much more difficult at other times. At those times, we need to pray even more, as Christ did in Gethsemane – “and being in agony, He prayed more earnestly”(Lk.22:44). Also at those moments, our prayer can take on a particular character and power which it may not always have at other moments.
Prayer opens our hearts to the action of God, to His will for us, and is our primary means of listening to Him.
For the Christian, prayer is absolutely indispensable. You will find Saints of the Church who never had visions, who never mortified themselves, who did not give their lives for the Faith – but you will never find a Saint who did not pray.
Fasting is a simple – but powerful – way of denying ourselves and our self will. Eating should be something we do to sustain us and to enable us to do the will of God with all our strength, not something that can so easily become an end in itself and a potential occasion of sin.
Fasting also reminds us that while we eat, many others starve or have barely enough to live on – and so, it can become a way of standing with those less fortunate than us, of showing solidarity with them.
The Gospel of Saint Matthew is very clear on the power of fasting when combined with prayer (cf. Mt.17:21).
Pope Francis tells us that if we “cannot commit to a total fast, the kind that makes you feel hunger in your bones” we can still do what we are able, with humility and consistency. This fasting is a way of “stripping oneself” of pride. He warns us “to help others. But always with a smile” as we fast. Our fast, he says, must have a purpose –
“Does my fast help others? If it does not it’s fake, it’s inconsistent and it takes you on the path to a double life, pretending to be a just Christian – like the Pharisees or the Sadducees”.
Perhaps with whatever money we save on food by fasting, we could use in moving on to the next point on the list – almsgiving.
Almsgiving achieves two things for the Christian. Firstly, it reminds us that we are stewards (rather than owners) of whatever we possess; everything we have has come from God, and we are obliged to share our belongings with others, especially those who have less than us. Secondly, it reminds us that all things pass and we must not be inordinately attached to any created thing – our hearts are made for God alone.
Emeritus Pope Benedict said –
“Dear brothers and sisters, Lent invites us to ‘train ourselves’ spiritually, also through the practice of almsgiving, in order to grow in charity and recognize in the poor Christ Himself.. In giving alms, we offer something material, a sign of the greater gift that we can impart to others through the announcement and witness of Christ, in Whose Name is found true life. Let this time, then, be marked by a personal and community effort of attachment to Christ in order that we may be witnesses of His love”.
Saint Teresa of Avila reminds us that “all things pass away except God”. We, too, will come to our own end one day – and we can take nothing with us apart from the good we have done. Perhaps what matters is not what we have received in life, but what we have given away.
Saint Francis de Sales gave good counsel on ways to pray, especially with a focus on the Passion of Christ. He wrote –
“I especially counsel you to practice mental prayer, the prayer of the heart, and particularly that which centres on the Life and Passion of Our Lord. By often turning your eyes on Him in meditation, your whole soul will be filled with Him”.
There is no better way to achieve what the Saint describes than through a prayerful reading of the Bible, and especially the Gospels.
The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council spoke eloquently of the core role of the Sacred Scriptures in the life of the Church and of the Christian –
“The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord, since, especially in the sacred liturgy, she unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life from the table both of God’s word and of Christ’s body. She has always maintained them, and continues to do so, together with sacred tradition, as the supreme rule of faith, since, as inspired by God and committed once and for all to writing, they impart the word of God Himself without change, and make the voice of the Holy Spirit resound in the words of the prophets and Apostles. Therefore, like the Christian religion itself, all the preaching of the Church must be nourished and regulated by Sacred Scripture. For in the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven meets His children with great love and speaks with them; and the force and power in the word of God is so great that it stands as the support and energy of the Church, the strength of faith for her sons, the food of the soul, the pure and everlasting source of spiritual life” (‘Dei Verbum’ para.21).
The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that the Word of God is alive and active. For it’s full power to take effect, we need to immerse ourselves in that living Word, as in a river in torrent. We cannot do this unless we take time to actively and prayerfully read the Scriptures. Lent is the perfect time to spend time reading the Word of God – and especially the Gospel of Saint John and his account of the Passion.
Social Media is capable of achieving much good when used properly. We can use it to spread the message of the Gospel, to pour balm on the wounds of others, to offer prayers with those in need, and to learn more deeply about our Faith.
But it also has the potential to do harm, for us and for others. We can spend far too long on social media, so that we neglect the duties of our state of life; we can be overcome by a sense of pride in our achievements, which is death to any good we might do; and we can reveal to others the less charitable and more judgemental aspects of our characters.
Lent, then, is a good opportunity to look carefully at our use of social media and to determine how we are using it, and whether it is to promote the Lord and His message – or to promote ourselves before others. Remember – we should not parade our good works before others, they should be known only to the Lord, Who alone sees the secrets in hearts. Spiritual pride is the deadliest form of this particular vice, not least because we are so easily able to justify to ourselves the harm we can do to others whilst at the same time inflating our own egos.
If we perceive that our use of social media is too great, or lacking charity, or a means of pride, or a way of avoiding our daily duty, then it is not a good and holy thing and we need to do something about it.
We live in a world of incessant noise; this noise serves to distract us, to anaesthetise us, to divert us. We tend to surround ourselves almost constantly with noise of one kind or another. This noise makes it all the more difficult to hear the voice of the Lord, Who so often speaks to us in silence and in solitude.
Emeritus Pope Benedict reminded us that we are not called to live noisy lives, but to follow the example of the Master –
“the Gospels often show us … Jesus withdrawing alone to a place far from the crowds, even from His own disciples, where He can pray in silence.. the great patristic tradition teaches us that the mysteries of Christ are linked to silence, and only in silence can the Word find a place to dwell within us.. In our prayers, we often find ourselves facing the silence of God. We almost experience a sense of abandonment; it seems that God does not listen and does not respond. But this silence, as happened to Jesus, does not signify absence. Christians know that the Lord is present and listens, even in moments of darkness and pain, of rejection and solitude. Jesus assures His disciples and each one of us that God is well aware of our needs at every moment of our lives”.
In this Lenten season, perhaps we can make a special effort to leave aside a little space for the Lord, a space filled with silence and away from the frenetic activity of the world, so that in that silence and peace, we can listen for and hear His divine voice, whispering quietly to us.
We never have enough time; not enough time to pray, not enough time to spend with the Lord, not enough time for the Sacramental life of the Church. And yet, strangely, we can spend hours in front of the television or in leisurely pursuits which do little good for our souls, and then we express surprise that another day is over and we are closer to the grave then yesterday.
Sometimes it is good to look a little more closely at what we are spending our time doing, what occupies us the most, and what occupies us the least. The results will often surprise us.
Try to look at your activities with spiritual eyes; is this or that thing doing me any spiritual good? Is it building treasure that will last? Or is it of no more worth than dust in a sunbeam?
If you can find ways to make a little more time available each day, then it is so much easier to consistently do the things listed above and to do things which have real worth. Perhaps some of that extra time could be put aside and given in practical ways, such as supporting a good cause – a local soup kitchen, a homeless project, or a food bank, for example. Then, we will truly be storing up for ourselves treasure which will never rust or be taken from us.