“Happy Lent!” “Have a good Lent!” These greetings sound like an oxymoron. In the midst of spiritual and physical discipline, introspection and ardor, ‘happy’ is probably the last word on my list during my Lenten journey. Yet, here we are entering our Lenten desert once again. What happens when we take time to step out of our daily, routine and possibly mundane lives for this experience in the desert? Let me break open a few spiritual disciplines that are deepened during our Lenten experience.
When entering the desert one of the first things that happens in our heads and hearts is that we are struck with the reality that things are not as usual. Attention is foundational to a healthy spiritual life. We hear in the gospel “Pay attention, be alert for you do not know…” (Matthew 24:42) To what do we pay attention during our Lenten sojourn? Our focal point is relationships: with self, the divine, others and with creation. We cross into the desert – ‘attending.’ On what we focus our attention shapes us.
Hand-in-hand with ‘paying attention’ is mindfulness. We are in an era of right mindfulness. Mindfulness training is in vogue for elementary schools and work places. It is a bit ironic that our heads are so full that we need mindfulness training. Yet, this is precisely the goal of our Lenten journey – to be mindful of who we are and where we are. The desert provides occasion to focus on the present, to consider what is right in front of us. Reciting the Jesus prayer is a simple way we can practice mindfulness. Another route might be to find a quiet space, sit for a few minutes and focus on our breathing. Learning the practice of mindfulness helps us to grow in awareness of God’s presence.
Paying attention and mindfulness are a natural entre to prayer. It is in our prayer, in the raising of our hearts and minds to God that we learn of our relationship with the divine. It is here that we learn to listen. Lenten prayer can take so many forms: sitting in silence, reading a daily reflection, closing the day with a simple examen, raising one’s heart to God at various moments through the day. The varieties are endless.
Deepening our relationship with divine presence draws us into a new awareness, a new worldview. We are taken out of our routines and see things from a different perspective. We recognize subtle changes in the colors of sky or the many shades of green reflected in plant life. More poignantly when we are alone with our God in the desert we grow in awareness of redemptive movements within ourselves that transform us. Possibly we are invited to let go of selfishness and move to generosity, or move from exclusion to inclusion, deceit to honesty or idolatry to freedom. The desert silence is key to recognizing the transformative nature of divine movement.
We grow weary in our seeing and tired in our hearing. This may very well be what Jesus was referencing when he said “you have eyes but you do not see; you have ears but you do not hear.” (Mark 8:18) Lent can be a time when we look again, when we re-spect the people and the world around us. Write a letter (and post it!) to someone you care about but have lost touch with. Reach out to someone that you least want to be with for in them you might recognize the face of Christ.
In addition to growing weary in our seeing, we might possibly grow wearing in our consumption. How can fasting open us up to those in need among us? Fasting traditionally was connected to food. However, it is much broader than food. We can fast from ‘device’ time, from TV, from relationship squabbles, negative work attitudes or noxious habits. The list is endless. Fasting can be transformative as it has the potential to take us out of our comfort zone and expand our worldview. We might do well to recall what we are fasting from and what we are fasting for. A helpful technique to this from and for dynamic is to connect our fasting with almsgiving.
Just as fasting comes in a myriad of forms so does giving of who we are and what we have. Where we spend our time and treasure reveals our values. How do we fill the void that is created when fasting from something? One possible ‘filler’ is to give time or treasure to a nonprofit. Another option might be to hold in mind a prayer intention of someone who is connected to the point of our fasting. For example: fasting from food leads to a prayer intention for the hungry or volunteering at a meal program. Fasting from squabbles with spouse leads to a prayer intention for victims of domestic abuse. Fasting from negative work attitudes— prayer intention for those seeking employment.
The desert provides lots of time to sit, breathe, see and grow in awareness. An enjoyable, yet poignant, activity that can enhance our Lenten experience is reading – from a book! opportunity to slow down and turn the page. Scripture, spiritual reading, poetry, a good short story, the saint of the day or even your patron saint are solid options for entering into this Lenten discipline and taking us out of normal routine.
9. Doing Justice and Peace
Our Lenten journey takes us deeper into an awareness of who we are as members of the Body of Christ. Doing justice seeks to repair broken systems and broken relationships. It is a practice that will take us out of our comfort zone. Time in the desert is an appropriate way for us to prepare to ‘do justice.’ Maybe this means writing a letter to a government representative voicing concern about a social justice issue. Doing justice might mean researching a social justice concern you care about and adding your voice to change the injustice. Repairing broken relationships is vital and hard work as members of the Body of Christ.
Play as a Lenten discipline?! Why not? During the hard work of Lenten desert experience a respite of play is just what our spirit needs to maintain balance. Play board games with children or grandchildren, watch a movie at home, go for a walk in a new environment, plan a game of cards with your spouse, play a virtual game online with friends, etc. All of these activities can be enlivening, rejuvenating and a chance to catch our breath during the Lenten journey. Our laughing Jesus and playful God would expect nothing less!
Prayer: Lord of Lent, breathe in us your Spirit of perseverance and wisdom. Through your desert experience you deepened your understanding of your relationship with your Father. May we be graced with that same insight.
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