It is well established and understood that Lent is a time of prayer, penance, fasting, abstinence and almsgiving with the goal of spiritual transformation. Generally, the focus has been on denial, “giving up something”, often some sort of food or drink. The idea of denying ourselves the pleasure of a piece of candy or a glass of wine, among other things, is to refocus our attention. Ideally, these personal sacrifices will lead to a greater awareness of God in our lives and to others, which in turn lead to prayer, penance and almsgiving.
Fasting and abstaining from food are still an integral part of the season but the understanding of what it means to fast or abstain has broadened. Since Ash Wednesday I have heard some interesting practices. One woman is doing her best not to be critical of others. Another is trying to see the goodness each day has to offer rather than worrying about outcomes over which she has no control.
As Easter approaches, you may find that the demands of life have overshadowed your Lenten intentions. Don’t despair; spending quiet time turning yourself over to God and being as internally silent as possible can result in a welcome spiritual awakening.
After one of these quiet moments, I remembered the Little Book (www.littlebooks.org) series based on the writings of the late Bishop Ken Untener (published through the Diocese of Saginaw, Michigan) and found a copy on Lent. A small paperback, simply written and illustrated (it fits in a purse or pocket), it follows the Passion narrative of Matthew and suggests prayer and actions appropriate for Lent.
The entry for Ash Wednesday reminds us that death is a fact of life, that one day each of us will go to God, and asks: “Does the way I am living my life take that into account?”
Addressing almsgiving, the writers ask, “What would happen if I took a large bite out of every week’s paycheck and gave it to the poor?” They acknowledge it may be unrealistic to do every week, but it might be reasonable once during Lent. The reader also is asked to think about how he or she participates in a system that “leaves so many people in need.”
Sin is addressed throughout the book most often using Peter’s denials of Jesus. Given the choice between repentance and despair, repentance is always the better choice, the reader is reminded, with the addendum: “Forgiveness is there for the asking.” A suggested exercise: Recite --- ten times, very slowly --- “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” What is the effect?
Because small and large sufferings come to all of us, readers are invited to place themselves at Gethsemane with Jesus and talk with him about their sufferings. Likewise they are asked to imagine being recruited off the street, like Simon of Cyrene, to carry the cross of Jesus. What might Simon have said about the experience a few years after the fact?
Finally, using the story of the crowd screaming for death when Pilate asked what should happen to Jesus, the reader is asked to contemplate situations, large and small, when they can be “life-giving or death-dealing,” when they can build up or tear down another.
The optimum Lenten practice is suggested at the bottom of most pages: “Spend some quiet time with the Lord.”