Lent is one of those seasons that always begins with the best of intentions and rapidly goes downhill, at least that’s how it usually plays out for me. I plan to pray more, eat less, and find creative ways to make my favorite time in the Church year more meaningful. Unfortunately, the ashes hardly have time to settle into the wrinkles on my forehead before I’m feeling like I’ve already failed.
But Lent is a journey, not a pass-fail test. Trust me, if it were at all possible to fail Lent, I would have long ago been expelled from this spiritual school. Fortunately, the goal here is not a perfect score at the end of 40 days. In fact, let’s throw out the word “goal” and focus instead on practice — spiritual practice.
Here are five tips for shifting your Lenten journey from total spiritual makeover to subtle interior transformation:
If you scroll through Facebook or Twitter today (if you haven’t given up social media for Lent), you’ll find a minor debate on the blogosphere over whether Ash Wednesday selfies are appropriate or in direct opposition to today’s Gospel reading about not standing on street corners so everyone can see how holy you are. Of course, we could ask the same question about the very act of walking around in public with ashes on your forehead, with or without a selfie, but that’s a blog post for another day. As for Ash Wednesday selfies, my husband, Dennis, and I have come up with a really great twist on the current trend toward the #ashtag. (Updated to show our double selfie because what’s good for the students is good for the teachers!)
If you click on the AOL homepage today, you’ll find Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York giving web visitors a great explanation of what this season of Lent is all about. He calls it a 40-day “spring training” that gets Catholics ready for the high holy days of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter. And he puts it into the context of other great religions. It’s worth checking out this short video.
I am going to admit right up front that I am a huge fan of Lent, always have been. It’s my kind of season. Perhaps that makes me weird, but it’s true. For me Ash Wednesday is a new beginning and Lent a time of possibilities.
From the moment the ashes are smeared on my forehead — “Remember, man, that you are dust and to dust you shall return” — I feel renewed. Does that sound odd considering the penitential nature of this season? For me it makes perfect sense. I like the idea of focusing on where I’ve fallen down, where I could do better, where I need to strip away the unnecessary stuff to get to the heart of the matter: God.
Sure, my fasting often involves giving up sweets — which doesn’t seem all that significant to some — but it’s about so much more than that. It’s about changing habits, removing obstacles, getting down to our spiritual core in hopes of changing our lives for the better not for 40 days but forever.
I know that’s putting an awful lot of pressure on Lent — and myself — to perform, and maybe that’s why I often struggle with my Lenten promises (see my previous post, “Lowering My Lenten Expectations” HERE), but I really believe each and every time Lent rolls around that this year can be different. And one of these years I’m going to be right. I also firmly believe that even if I don’t make monumental changes in my life over the course of the 40 days, I probably do make minor changes that go unnoticed but strengthen my faith life in subtle ways.
So…I start today. I am filled with high hopes for the journey we have just begun, hope that by Lent’s end I might find myself at least a few steps closer to God. But I’m going to need all the support I can get, so I’m looking around for resources and hoping to share them with you along the way.
For starters, here are some places you might like to look:
— Busted Halo has a high-tech Lenten calendar posted HERE. You can click on each day as it arrives (no clicking ahead allowed) for suggested practices related to fasting, prayer and almsgiving. Today, in addition to reminding us to fast and abstain from meat, the calendar suggests giving some time to someone you know who is lonely. An added bonus of using the Fast Pray Give calendar at Busted Halo? You’ll have a chance to enter a contest to win an iPad, in addition to smaller prizes, like today’s “The Spirituality of Fasting” by Msgr. Charles Murphy. Great book, by the way.
— Catholic Relief Services has an email service connected to its Operation Rice Bowl project, with reflections to help us remember those who have less and to focus our own Lenten fasting on something bigger than ourselves. If you’re not doing Operation Rice Bowl this year, try to pick up a bowl and calendar at your parish and join in.
— Mike Hayes over at Googling God is hosting a 50-Day Give Away. A few days before Lent, he started giving away one of his possessions every day. I had hoped to join him in this inspiring endeavor, but, as I told him, I realized that my effort would have had to be the 40-Day THROW Away because no one would want the stuff I need to shed from my life. Still, I plan to follow his lead, at least in part, and find some things I can strip out of my life and offer to someone else. You’ve been warned.
— Of course, you can follow my other blog posts over at OSV Daily Take, where today I’m taking a survey on whether people include Sundays in their Lenten fast. Head over there and voice your opinion on this critical issue. (For the record, I don’t count Sundays in my Lenten fast, although I try not to overdo it on the stuff I gave up.)
— Finally, I’ll be reading daily reflections in my Magnificat Lenten Companion 2011, which is sold out online, I believe, but may still be available at your local Catholic bookstore.
I had actually considered giving up some element of Facebook use as part of my Lenten fast. I couldn’t give it up completely because it is part of my job to be there (and here). But, as I reflected on that possibility, I realized something big: Facebook has become a really important part of my spiritual life. Does that sound crazy? It’s true. I am blessed to be FB friends with so many wonderful people, so many wonderful writers, and they continually amaze me with their own blog posts and the links they provide to other powerful spiritual writers. As some of those posts and links come up, I’ll share them here.
Today, for example Brother Dan Horan, O.F.M., over at Dating God has a wonderful Ash Wednesday post, courtesy of Thomas Merton. Check that out HERE.
And Elizabeth Scalia has a great post full of Lenten links over at The Anchoress on Patheos. She also posted her Ash Wednesday “homily” at the Catholic portal of Patheos. She had me at “Moonstruck.” Go HERE and you’ll see what I mean.
Much more to come in the days ahead. Enter the desert joyfully. Wear your ashes full of hope. It is a new day, a new season, a time of new possibilities.
Remember, man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
— Genesis 3:19
Ashes have got to be one of the most misunderstood symbols — or sacramentals — in the Catholic Church, and that’s saying something. Churches will be packed today, with Catholics of every stripe and degree coming forward to be marked with the burned and blessed remains of last year’s palm fronds. You have to admit, it’s a pretty cool thing, but too often the meaning of the mark gets lost.
For some it’s like a talisman, something they must get in order to be protected, like staying away from black cats and open ladders. For others it’s one of those Catholic habits that you keep up long after you’ve stopped going to church. And for still others it’s the equivalent of wearing a NY Giants jersey to work the day after the big game, a little in-your-face, I’m-a-Catholic pride.
In our death-denying society, it’s easy to forget, or ignore, that these ashes on our foreheads are a mark of our mortality. Like the dust rubbed across our skin, we too will disintegrate one day back into the earth, a faint remnant of what we once were. (more…)