Lent is traditionally a time for prayer and fasting. This year, I am especially drawn to these words from my reading: “Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. So, if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ear to others, you open God’s ear to yourself.”
They are the words of St. Peter Chrysologus, one of the Church Fathers who lived in the late fourth and early fifth centuries (Sermon 43: PL 52, 320, 322), and are found in the Office of Readings of the Liturgy of Hours for Tuesday of the third week of Lent. Pope Benedict XVI also quoted them in his Lenten Message 2009.
St. Teresa of Calcutta once remarked, “As Lent is the time for greater love, listen to Jesus’ thirst… ‘Repent and believe’ Jesus tells us. What are we to repent? Our indifference, our hardness of heart. What are we to believe? Jesus thirsts even now, in your heart and in the poor. He knows your weakness. He wants only your love, wants only the chance to love you.”
Profound words, indeed! And our love for God and God’s love for us is not a passive thing. It leads somewhere and to something concrete in our relationships with one another. Lent is not simply a time for our introspection and meditation, for disconnected fasting and sacrifice. It is a season of purpose, set apart for the conversion of our hearts and lives.
Over the many years of my priestly ministry, Catholics have frequently asked me “Father, what should I do for Lent?”
I recall reading somewhere these words in one of the Lenten Messages of Pope Benedict XVI: “Lent stimulates us to let the Word of God penetrate our life and in this way to know the fundamental truth: who we are, where we come from, where we must go, what path we must take in life.”
Lent is the right path and the right place to continue our personal journey of faith and spiritual growth. And, so, might I suggest these Lenten practices:
Make a plan and stick to it
The season of Lent does not come as a surprise. It is an annual part of every year in the Church, a 40-day period beginning on Ash Wednesday. As Catholics we can and should anticipate and prepare for it by deciding what kind of spiritual activities we will pursue as we prepare for Easter. We should make a plan of those activities and stick to it as best we can. The key to a successful Lent is not to overcomplicate it with multiple, burdensome practices that we cannot sustain for its duration. Keep it simple.
Read the Scriptures
Listen to God’s Word as it is proclaimed at Mass; reflect upon the claims that God’s Word makes upon you to whom it is addressed. Turn to the Lord Jesus and hear what he has to say to you. Don’t pass up the opportunity.
Pope Francis has said: “Listen to the Word of God, meditate on it together, pray with it, let the Lord fill your lives with mercy … I would like so much for all Christians to be able to comprehend ‘the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ’ through the diligent reading of the Word of God, for the sacred text is the nourishment of the soul and the pure and perennial source of the spiritual life of all of us.”
Pick up your Bible and read it, especially the Gospels. Make a point of doing it daily or often during Lent. Create a habit that you can continue beyond these 40 days. It’s not difficult. It’s right in front of you.
Pray and give yourself the time to do so
Prayer is something you can do anywhere, everywhere. Prayer is something you can do anytime, all the time. Just stop for a moment and remember that God is present. God wants to hear from you and about you. And God wants to speak if you would only give him the chance. Pray in the morning as you start your day. Pray at night as your day ends. Pray during your day, even if it’s only to tell God you love him and you need him. Pray alone. Pray with others, especially at Mass. Use your own words; use words that are familiar. Pray for yourself, pray for others, especially for those you love and who love you. Pray for those who do not. Pray with your family. Don’t be embarrassed. Just do it.
In his Lenten Message 2015, Pope Francis wrote: “Let us all ask the Lord: make our hearts like yours (Litany of the Sacred Heart of Jesus). In this way we will receive a heart which is firm and merciful, attentive and generous, a heart which is not closed.”
Don’t make a big, complicated deal of it. Just do it. It’s not difficult. It’s right in front of you.
Go to Confession
Whether it’s been a long time or last month, the Sacrament of Penance brings healing, grace and peace of mind and heart. What are you waiting for? Why put it off any longer? You know yourself and your weaknesses and sins. Are you trying to hide from yourself? You can’t. God knows your weaknesses and sins. Are you trying to hide from him? You can’t. The Scriptures remind us: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you (Jeremiah 1: 5).” Are you afraid of the priest? Forget it because he is a sinner too and has to go to another priest for Confession himself.
Pope Francis once remarked: “Someone can say, ‘I confess my sins only to God.’ Yes, you can say to God, ‘forgive me,’ and say your sins. But our sins are also against our brothers, against the Church. This is why it is necessary to ask forgiveness of the Church and of our brothers, in the person of the priest.”
“The Sacrament of Reconciliation is a Sacrament of healing,” he pointed out. “When I go to Confession, it’s for healing: healing the soul, healing the heart because of something that I did to make it unwell (General Audience, February 19, 2014).”
How often Pope Francis himself says, “I am a sinner!” And he’s the Pope! Ask for God’s mercy. It’s not difficult. It’s right in front of you.
Give something up that might pinch a little. This is a long-standing Lenten tradition, and we can all think of something “to give up for Lent.” The season of Lent begins with fast and abstinence on Ash Wednesday and continues with abstinence from meat on all its Fridays until the fast and abstinence of Good Friday. Fast and abstain when the Church asks you to and don’t make excuses. Do it so that the hunger or emptiness you feel might remind you that you need God more in your life than anything else.
Thomas a Kempis wrote in “The Imitation of Christ”: “Nothing, how little so ever it be, if it is suffered for God’s sake, can pass without merit in the sight of God.”
In his Lenten Message for 2014, Pope Francis wrote: “Lent is a fitting time for self-denial; we would do well to ask ourselves what we can give up in order to help and enrich others by our own poverty. Let us not forget that real poverty hurts: no self-denial is real without this dimension of penance. I distrust a charity that costs nothing and does not hurt.”
It’s not difficult. It’s right in front of you.
Show mercy, kindness and charity
And not because others have earned it. Show mercy, kindness and charity especially when they don’t deserve it. Forgive. Be slow to judge. Give people a break. Show a little compassion. That’s what the Lord Jesus does and what we ask of him, sinners that we all are. Do something good for someone. It’s not difficult. It’s right in front of you.
If you drop the ball, pick it up again and get back in the game
Forty Days is a significant period of time. Don’t be discouraged if your stumble with any of your Lenten practices. Just pick up where you left off and keep going.
This Lent, let us call on the Lord’s name so that Lent 2024 may be a time of growth in true holiness, not only a matter of “what should I do” as a Catholic, but also “who should I be?” It is not that difficult. Don’t make it difficult. May your observance, our observance of the season of Lent this year bear great fruit!