“Through prayer, charity and humility before God, people receive a heart that is firm and merciful, attentive and generous, a heart that is not closed, indifferent or prey to the globalization of indifference,” Pope Francis said this year in his Lenten message. The Holy Father said, “How greatly I desire that all those places where the Church is present, especially our parishes and our communities, may become islands of mercy in the midst of the sea of indifference!”
We have entered the season of Lent. This is a season of prayer, of fasting, and of charity. This is a season of preparation as we await Easter and the glorious triumph of Our Lord. This is a season to anticipate the Kingdom of God, which is at once both present and yet to come.
This is also a season in which we may encounter temptation. Today’s Gospel tells that even Jesus was tempted by Satan during Christ’s forty days in the desert. How will we react when we are tempted by Satan? The Lenten disciplines both prepare us to overcome temptation and strengthen us in our fight against the Tempter.
In a certain way, Lent is our forty days in the desert. Ours is a spiritual sojourn, but the desert in which we travel is not a barren or lifeless waste. It is a desert teaming with life and with beauty for those who know where and how to look for it. It is a desert of both challenge and abundance, but it is not a place for the weak or the unprepared.
In a very real way, Lent is what you make of it. If you’ve not really prepared for Lent and you’re not really looking to make too many changes in your spiritual life, and in fact you’re not even much interested in sticking with the whole fish-on-Friday thing, well, you’re not going to get much out of Lent. You will only see the emptiness of the desert.
On the other hand, if you have prepared… if you’ve thought about how you want to enhance your life of prayer this Lent… if you’re prepared to embrace the Lenten spirit of fasting… if you’re ready and eager to expand your capacity for love of God and neighbor… then you are prepared for a very fruitful Lent. You are in the right place to be better off at the end of Lent than you are now, and that is exactly where you should be. You will see the fruitfulness of the desert.
Now, if you’re in that first group – the group that just doesn’t much care or just doesn’t want to be bothered – the truth is, I really can’t help you. I can pray for you, and I do… but until you decide you want to have a spiritual life, there is really nothing anyone can do for you that will help you improve it.
And if you’re in that second group – the group that is prepared for Lent and has already set off on their Lenten journey toward a closer relationship with Christ – well, the truth is I really can’t help you, either. But that’s okay; you don’t need it. You’ve got it figured out and will do just fine.
However, if you’re afraid you’re in the first group but you want to be in the second group, that I can help you with. If you genuinely want to have a deeply spiritual and fruitful Lent but don’t quite know where to start, then the best place to start is with prayer.
Do you pray every day? You should. Whether it’s reciting the Rosary daily, or praying the Divine Office, or Lectio Divina, or daily contemplation, or reciting the Our Father before bed, or any of the very many other prayers that can be said you should be praying daily. If you don’t pray daily, then today is the day to start.
Some folks have tried to start with it all. Twenty decades of the Rosary, Lauds, Vespers, thirty minutes of Lectio, the Divine Mercy Chaplet, and so on and so on. That generally doesn’t work. It lasts maybe three days, and then it’s back to not praying at all. Prayer is like exercise. You have to run around the block before you can run a marathon. You have to work up to it.
If you’re not praying at all, start out by saying grace before meals. Once that becomes comfortable, add an Our Father at bedtime. Once that becomes comfortable, add the Rosary. And so on. Wherever you are in your prayer life, add a little more. Take small steps. Maybe that means just a Hail Mary first thing in the morning. Maybe that means taking an hour – or another hour – of adoration in the chapel. As long as your prayer life is moving forward, you’re going in the right direction.
And, please — don’t think that I’m telling you it is never good enough. That no matter how much you pray, you ought to pray a little more. That’s not what I’m telling you at all, because it’s not a question of good enough. If you prayed nothing else other than simply saying, “Thank You” to God every day… that would be good enough. The question isn’t what is good enough… the question is what is satisfying. When you reach the point of praying enough — not good enough, but simply enough time in prayer — you will know that you have. Then your attention will shift from quantity to quality. Could I pray better? Could my conversations with God be deeper?
What have you decided to give up for Lent? One of the reasons we have the tradition of giving up something for Lent is to embrace the Lenten spirit of fasting. Not eating cookies or not drinking beer or not using Facebook during Lent might seem like a very small thing – and in many ways it is – but the point isn’t the size of the thing, it’s the spirit in which it is undertaken. By giving up something that you enjoy that, while not harmful, also does not advance the spiritual life, you embrace the spirit of fasting. This is a spirit that certainly need not be confined to Lent, but the Lenten season is an excellent place for it to start.
Fasting isn’t about being hungry; it’s about building discipline. And discipline is something that is very much needed in the spiritual life. Though this might not be true for some of our younger parishioners, for most of us there is no one to remind us to pray. No one to remind us to thank God for our many blessings. There is no one to make sure we are advancing our spiritual life except us. Doing that takes discipline.
It’s also about making room. You take something out of your life that does not advance the spiritual life, and you make room for something that does advance the spiritual life. Trading an hour of television for an hour of adoration will not only not hurt you in any way, it will help you in every way. You will become a better person if the experience is embraced with a true Lenten spirit. It is unavoidable. How can it not happen? Adoration is the act of going before the Lord and asking to spend time with your friend. And your friend, Jesus Christ, omnipotent ruler of the universe, is there waiting for you with open arms, ready to embrace you and welcome you into His friendship.
This Lent, let us all focus on our prayer life, on charity, and on humility before God… for these are key to receiving a heart that is firm and merciful, attentive and generous, a heart that is not closed or indifferent. These are the pillars on which an island of mercy can be built in a sea of indifference.