It started out like any other day. I woke up, stumbling into the shower and closed my eyes to let the hot water finish waking me up. It was only when I opened my eyes again that I noticed something was wrong. In my right eye there was a dark spot in the corner that shouldn’t have been there. Within six hours I was in surgery having a tear in my retina repaired. Thanks be to God and my surgeon, my eye is on the mend. In light of all the suffering in this broken world of ours, mine has been tiny and minor. And yet it’s been enough to open my eyes, pardon the pun.
Lent is like that, too. It interrupts our routine and makes us look at life in a different way. It slows us down and makes us think about what we’re doing more deliberately. Lent is an opportunity to see the world, and ourselves, through different eyes. My torn retina and the surgical repair that followed has (temporarily) changed my vision. My prayer is that Lent will have a more long-lasting change in my heart.
Throughout the centuries, the Church has taught us that the best way to experience Lent is through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. In this tradition, we can look to the Saints for advice and example. I like the ones who keep things simple. “Prayer should be short and simple,” writes St. Benedict. Of course, as the greatest of all the Western monastics, he probably spent many hours of each day in prayer. He also worked and played and read and wrote and slept—proving that sainthood is something not limited to Sunday morning worship. When even the most ordinary activities of our daily lives are offered to God for His praise and use, His grace sanctifies our efforts. Flannery O’Connor reminds us that sometimes the hardest part of prayer is getting out of God’s way. Amen, sister. This Lent, try starting each morning in prayer. Offer God all your work and play of that day. Invite Him to guide you as you make decisions and open your eyes to the opportunities around you to serve others.
Fasting sounds really tough to most of us, because we don’t usually deny ourselves very much. Certainly we can fast from food, as Catholics will on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. This is a discipline of our bodies which frees us to focus on our spiritual nourishment. There are lots of ways to fast and many things we can fast from other than our favorite foods. Give up gossip for Lent, or a tv show you’re accustomed to watching. Fast from taking selfies or from buying that next pair of shoes. Whenever we deny ourselves we exercise the muscles of our souls and become just a little bit less self-centered.
Almsgiving is the third way we can renew our spiritual lives during Lent. Yes, it’s important that we give money in support of the church and to help the needy. But maybe its just as important to give our time to other people. Who do you know that is lonely, or confined to a nursing home, or prison? Is there a talent you have that you could share with your parish or a charity that’s meaningful to you? For me, giving forgiveness is important. Can you think of someone, living or dead, that needs your forgiveness? This gift of mercy is precious to our Lord and pleases Him greatly.
Lent isn’t a time for sad faces and gloomy dispositions. It’s a season of opportunity, when we can take an honest look at ourselves and ask God to help us become more like Him. It’s good for us to slow down and spend more time in prayer. Discipline helps us to grow in charity and showing mercy to someone who’s hurt us can be a source of great joy and healing. For the next six weeks, we can focus more on what we might have been overlooking lately, especially our prayer life. Ask God what He wants from you this Lent. Pray that He’ll open your eyes to see the needs of those around you and how you can help. Lent can be a rich and beautiful time of growth and renewal…sort of like springtime.
“One of the best ways to get happiness and pleasure out of life is to ask ourselves: ‘How can I please God?’ “
—Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen