THE MERE MENTION of Lent can sometimes seem dismal, like a long, dreary day. Lent consists, in fact, of 40 days and 40 nights of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Who can endure it?
Yet the word “Lent” does not pertain to darkness or despair. Quite the opposite. The original meaning of the word actually has to do with springtime. When Lent begins, it’s winter. But by the time Lent concludes, the days are growing longer and the forsythias are in bloom. Even if there is an unseasonal snow shower, we take heart knowing that winter is having its last gasp.
Lent, then, represents a new springtime in our spiritual lives. It’s a time when the darkness of sin gives way to a new light of grace.
SEASON OF RENEWAL
Three analogies might help us see Lent in terms of a spiritual springtime.
First, just as we do spring cleaning, washing away the dirt and grime that accumulates during the winter months, so too Lent is a time for cleansing our souls and our hearts, making them a beautiful dwelling place for the Lord.
Or to use another comparison, spring is the season when farmers clear the land of debris and till the soil, thus giving the seeds they plant every chance to germinate. So, too, in Lent we are to clear the soil of our hearts from the debris of sin and the deadwood of hatred; by spiritual discipline, we till and enrich the soil of our souls so that the seed of God’s Word, planted in us at baptism, will germinate and grow.
Finally, in winter, we sometimes feel poorly due to indoor pollutants that contaminate the air we breathe. When the weather grows warmer, we open windows to let in fresh air. Just the thought of getting out of the house and taking a walk makes us feel better. But isn’t it true that we sometimes “insulate” our hearts? When we become self-centered, we close the windows of our soul to God’s love and the needs of others. Then the spiritual air we breathe becomes stuffy, even polluted, with self-pity, impurity, anger, grudges and thoughts of revenge. Lent is a time to open the windows of our souls, to allow the fresh air of God’s love to circulate anew in the depths of our hearts and to get ourselves moving outward — toward our brothers and sisters who are in need.
Once we look at the season of Lent as the herald of a new springtime in our spiritual lives, Lenten practices are no longer unwelcome intrusions into our comfort. Rather, they become harbingers of hope for a more Christ-centered way of life. These penitential practices are indicators and tools of God’s mercy — mercy that is always available to us. Divine Mercy has the power to transform our way of life.
With this perspective in mind, let’s briefly review the three principal Lenten practices, with our eyes fixed on the goal of renewed spiritual joy and greater holiness of life.
THE PRACTICE OF FAITH
Let’s begin with prayer, or conversation with God. There are many ways to pray, but let’s concentrate on one: silent, mental prayer, when we are alone with God and his voice echoes in our hearts. Such prayerful solitude requires us to turn off all our electronic devices, block out distractions and simply ask the Lord to let us see ourselves as he sees us. This is more than self-awareness. It is asking the Lord to help us measure our lives according to his standards, not our own. It is humbly asking the Lord for grace and strength to confront our overt sins as well as the hidden corruption that we often conceal from others and even from ourselves.
I don’t know about you, but when I pray in this way, I find I’m well short of the mark. Such prayer leads me to seek the Lord’s mercy and to make an unburdening confession of my sins. Lent is preeminently the time to grow in prayer and to receive the sacrament of reconciliation. This is a first and essential step in spiritual housecleaning.
A second Lenten practice is fasting or some other form of self-denial. This isn’t the same as dieting. Rather, depriving ourselves of food is connected with the arduous process of emptying ourselves of everything that obstructs the grace of God from working in us and through us. Fasting has a way of helping us uproot our deep-seated habits of sin and our endless desire for comfort, convenience, power and esteem. The discipline of foregoing food or other comforts is a way of tilling the soil of our souls, making them receptive to God’s Word.
A final Lenten practice is almsgiving, which includes giving of ourselves and our resources to those who are in need. The practice of charity is how we open the windows of our souls to God’s love, forgetting our own wants and needs and concentrating instead on the needs of others, especially the poor and vulnerable. When we open our hearts in love to those in need, the stale air of self-centeredness dissipates as the fresh air of Jesus’ self-giving love circulates through our inmost being, and we are thus spiritually reinvigorated. For us as Knights, this practice of charity should be second nature.
Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are, in fact, inseparable. As St. Peter Chrysologus (+450) taught: “Fasting is the soul of prayer, almsgiving is the lifeblood of fasting. … When you fast, see the fasting of others. If you want God to know you are hungry, know that another is hungry. If you want mercy, show mercy.”
In this way, may our Lenten observance lead us to experience a renewed life in Christ and joy in the Holy Spirit.