By: Deacon Charles Rohrbacher
February is already half-over and Lent begins soon, on March 6th. I actually look forward to the opportunity that Lent provides to put everything else aside and focus on spiritual renewal. If you are at all like me, it’s easy to have good intentions for Lent but to be caught (as if by surprise) when Ash Wednesday begins this season of conversion and penitence.
The traditional spiritual practices of Lent: prayer, fasting and almsgiving, are as simple as they are challenging. The forty-days of Lent are intended to renew and deepen our spiritual life through prayer, self-denial and generosity to those who are poor and in need.
This season began in the early Church as forty days of intense preparation by adult converts who were to receive the Easter sacraments of baptism, confirmation and Eucharist. As Easter approached, those preparing for baptism were determined to leave behind everything that was contrary to Christ and the gospel and to embrace more intensely what it meant to live as a Christian. The ‘tools’ of this call to conversion were prayer, fasting and self-denial, an open-handed generosity towards the poor and needy, and the hearing, pondering and applying the Word of God.
Even in the Middle Ages, when the majority of the faithful were baptized as infants, Christians continued to prepare to renew their baptism and receive the Blessed Sacrament at Easter by following the Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, almsgiving and spiritual reading.
The restoration of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults following the Second Vatican Council has helped us to appreciate better the centrality of conversion to Christ. During Lent, we accompany the Elect (those who will be baptized at the upcoming Easter Vigil) through the period of intense preparation for baptism that the rite calls “Purification and Enlightenment.” We celebrate with them three Scrutinies (rites which help the Elect to renounce all that is not of Christ in their lives and in the world) and to recognize Christ’s saving and redeeming power already at work in their lives.
We accompany the Elect as they deepen their conversion to Christ before baptism, not as bystanders but aware of our own need to follow Jesus more faithfully and to reject the power of sin in our lives. Conversion is a life-long task for all of us who struggle to follow Jesus faithfully. At whatever place we are in our journey of faith, each of us is in need of renewal and conversion, and each of us can benefit from being more intentional and disciplined in spiritual life.
Our Catholic tradition recommends four ways in which each of us can make a good Lent this year:
- Prayer: Establish (or reestablish) a daily rule of prayer. Everyone is free to choose when and how much time to spend in prayer and the most suitable method of prayer. However, make the rule of prayer daily and non-negotiable and stick to it.
- Fasting: Fasting reminds us concretely that we are not our appetites. Limiting or giving up entirely certain foods, beverages, entertainment and activities during Lent is a concrete way of recognizing the hold our appetites have over us as well as learning that with Christ’s help we can discipline those appetites. As with establishing a rule of prayer, be realistic and specific about what we fast from and stick to it throughout the Lenten season.
- Almsgiving: As a spiritual practice, generosity to the poor and needy is a way to think more about the needs of others and less about ourselves and what we want and desire. Our fasting and self-denial during Lent frees up resources that we can share with our brothers and sisters in need. Participation is Operation Rice Bowl is an excellent way for us to be generous to our neighbors and give alms daily.
- Spiritual Reading: Lent is a chance to develop our spiritual lives. A time-honored practice for Christians has been to spend some time each day during Lent on spiritual reading. This requires making time and space in our lives free of distractions and interruptions. Turning off the television, fasting from movies, Facebook and the internet and just saying ‘no’ to so much of the busyness that prevents us from growing spiritually are ways of making time for spiritual reading. Commit to a time of spiritual reading each day: read the daily readings, or one of the gospels or letters of St. Paul, the writings of the Church Fathers, the biography of a saint or the work of a modern Catholic or Christian spiritual writer. As with the other disciplines of Lent, a little bit done every day is the best.
Also, there is one more traditional Lenten practice that we should not overlook: penance. As we go deeper in prayer, see the hold that our appetites have on us, and struggle to put our neighbor and not ourselves first, we are inevitably confronted with the power that sin has over our lives and the hold it has on us. Eastern Catholics and Orthodox Christians begin Lent with the beautiful celebration of Forgiveness Sunday, during which Christians personally seek each other out and ask for forgiveness.
Forgiving and being forgiven is the very essence of true conversion and during Lent, each of should take advantage of the opportunity to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In our larger parish communities, this sacrament is available weekly before Mass, at special Lenten penance services and always by appointment with your parish priest. In our smaller parishes and missions, our visiting priests are eager to celebrate this beautiful sacrament of healing and new life with us.
May God give each of us a fruitful and holy Lent this year!