For many Catholics, Lent has become something of an endurance test, not unlike children competing to hold their breath under water. People seek to deprive themselves in the same way, hoping that they can last all the way to Easter when they can breathe deeply and relax.
The problem with this lies in the fact that while we may white knuckle our way to Easter, chances are that we won’t come any closer to Jesus, the Resurrected Lord. And Lent, after all, is a journey to Easter. It’s not necessarily about kicking a bad habit or losing a few extra pounds. If those things happen as well, that’s great. But when we look at our Lenten practices, we need to ask ourselves if they will help us to love the Lord (and others) more.
Here are three quick suggestions for Lenten practices.
1. Think of the others
All too often we get caught up inside ourselves. It’s easy to do. Lent can be an opportunity to self-correct by thinking of what we can do for others. For this reason, Christians have given particular attention to the needy during Lent, a practice that has lasted for centuries.
And almsgiving need not be a formalized gift of time or resources to an organization. Sometimes, it can be an act of charity to smile at someone. Whether that person is close to us, or a complete stranger, a simple smile can be a healing sign of hope, peace, and joy.
Take time to pray for those with whom we are in conflict. Maybe think of a different person each day to pray for.
But most of all, we should use this time to see Christ in others. Keeping in mind that none of us is without our shortcomings, we might give a pass to those whose small annoyances bother us on a regular basis. After all, if Christ, who is perfect, can love them; we should strive to be perfect as he is and to love them for who they are.
2. Get to know Jesus
While we’re talking about thinking of others, we should also take time to think of Jesus, to listen to him, to be with him, and to love him. In 2007, Pope Benedict reminded us of St. Jerome’s observation: “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” Just this past week, Pope Francis commented that we should spend as much time reading the Bible as we do checking our smart phones.
Make a commitment to read a bit of Sacred Scripture every day. The Mass readings are easily available online (http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/030617.cfm) and can be sent daily via email. (The link provided here has the readings in Spanish and in English.) If you prefer to use your phone, download (https://www.lighthousecatholicmedia.org/app) an app that contains the Bible and extra material for studying the Bible.
Perhaps you can only commit to five minutes each morning. Or you could decide to check that app as often as you check your favorite social media, news, and other apps. Any time that you spend will be time spent thinking of the Other who is the Risen Lord, the one who calls us friend, our spiritual brother, the Son who brings us to our Father.
Typically, we think of going without material things when we think of mortifications – giving up chocolate, alcohol, coffee, cigarettes, social media, or some other favorite. Some of us persevere through Lent. Some of us last only a few days.
These material mortifications should be good to help us train our will to become stronger, but too often they make us more like the kids in the swimming pool holding their breath. It’s fine for a game, but it doesn’t help to make our lives better.
At the same time, it might be a more worthwhile challenge to see if we can fast from things like judgment, gossip, slander, profanity, or even excessive sadness. As Jesus taught us in Matthew 15: 10-11, it is not what goes into our mouths that defiles us, but what comes out.
St. Paul exhorted us to run the race so as to win (1 Cor 9); so there’s certainly a point to cultivating endurance, especially during Lent. But Paul knew that endurance was ordered to union with God (2 Tim 4:7).
Whatever our Lenten practices may be, let’s make certain that they’ll bring us closer to God rather than trapping us within our own weaknesses.