Practices

Lent 2014: Giving up, Taking up, Lifting Up

I guess it’s ironic to say “Happy Lent!” when it’s meant to be a season of solemn reflection, but I hope you understand my sentiment.

For Catholics, this is an important liturgical season that invites us to better ourselves and recognize our blessings. In the forty days before Easter, we prepare to receive Christ’s most profound gift to us in three ways: prayers, fasting, and almsgiving. Through these habits, we seek to become more Christ-like, which makes us more ready to accept and appreciate God’s unending mercy and forgiveness, as well as Christ’s death and resurrection.

In asking us to consciously alter our behavior in these ways, the Church calls for us to both identify with and emulate Christ. Though our sacrifices of candy and caffeine are microscopic compared to his suffering, we have the opportunity to deny ourselves those small pleasures and understand what it means to give something up for an unselfish purpose. Additionally, if we choose a vice to give up for the full stretch of Lent, we often find ourselves breaking bad habits and bettering ourselves for the change. None of us is perfect, but purposefully disrupting a habitual cycle of negative behavior—for example, excessive shopping followed by buyer’s remorse—makes us stronger, healthier, and that much more Christ-like in our actions. We are the body of Christ, after all, so taking better care of ourselves means taking better care of our faith and each other.

Acts of charity, of course, also make us more Christ-like in our behavior. For example, I have a tendency to hoard spare change for no real reason (e.g., “Maybe I’ll take it to the bank for cashing eventually, even though it sits on my dresser untouched for months at a time…?”). For me, the simple act of acknowledging that excess and placing it in an Operation Rice Bowl or other charitable vehicle is a moment of reflection and personal improvement. Almsgiving also means sharing food and other necessities with our neighbors in need, so donating to a food pantry or picking up a couple of gift cards for the homeless people you walk by on your commute are easy ways to answer that call, too.

Simple as these things it may be, they’re something—and something always beats nothing.

Prayer, of course, is the way we internalize those changes in behavior and what they can really mean. By following through on those commitments and speaking openly and often about them with God, we are able to reflect on His presence in our life, our mission to serve Him, and the influence that love and faith have on our day-to-day behavior.

If you’re looking for some appropriate Bible study to support that Lenten reflection, I’d suggest starting with Psalm 103. It’s a beautiful psalm focused on the love and forgiveness of God, and how His care for us is vast and without question. Check it out for a kickstarter to your Lenten reflection, if you’re interested.

I’d also encourage you to check out Pope Francis’s Lenten message for this year, which you can find here. You can also see a devotional calendar based on his message here.

The funny thing is that we are called to engage in all three of those practices all year long. But, because we are human and imperfect and we know it (and because the time before Easter is the most critical time for us to understand all that we’ve been given), Lent is a period of accountability and renewed commitment. Think of it in the same spirit as setting deadlines for yourself to accomplish personal goals—though you aim to get it done regardless of the timing, you know you may not follow through if you don’t have something holding you to it.

The short of it is that Lent is a period of purposeful, spiritual reflection and engagement with the Church. We use these forty days to recognize our shortcomings and try to fix them; to better understand and share in Christ’s selfless love for us; and help each other in any way we can. It is an opportunity for us all to act in true Christian form so we may both give and receive all the forgiveness that love has to offer.

And when it’s over, we reach a few pretty awesome perks: loads of sweets, time with family, the ultimate love of Christ, and, hopefully, an improved way of living our lives.

At least until next year, when we’re blessed with a chance to try again.

Lenten Message

Giving Faith a Boost in Just 88 Hours per Year

As a kid, I wasn’t very good about going to Mass. I complained, hated waking up “early” on Sunday mornings, and didn’t stay focused during the liturgy. I think a lot of kids are like that, unfortunately. It can be hard to get them involved.

What’s harder, though, is sticking with the routine when we’re older and our parents aren’t there to hold us accountable. Especially in young adulthood, it’s easy to neglect that weekly obligation. You’re tired. You’re working (or playing) hard. You’ve got a project to finish. Your friends aren’t going.

Fortunately, we Catholics are blessed with a special kind of guilt complex. That’s because the Church is always there to hold us accountable, even when our neighbors aren’t. She has our basic obligations cleanly and simply outlined for us: go to Mass on Sundays and holy days; confess your sins at least once yearly; receive the Eucharist at least once yearly; observe a handful of fasting and abstinence days throughout the year; give what you can.

Those obligations aren’t difficult to meet. At their hearts, all of them are about receiving much more than they’re about giving. And when you consider how much time it takes to fulfill them, it’s difficult to justify neglecting them.

Let’s assume each Mass takes an average of 1.5 hours to attend. In 2014, there will be 52 Sundays and 6 holy days of obligation (in the United States). 58 multiplied by 1.5 equals 87.

The Eucharist is part of the Mass, so no need to add extra time there. Fasting and abstinence aren’t about giving up time; they’re small sacrifices to make you think about the gifts God has given you. And giving what you can doesn’t have to mean more time—it means a few coins or bills out of your pocket, a few extra groceries in your cart.

So all that’s left is to add another hour for that annual confession. It probably won’t take nearly that long, but we’ll account for travel and wait times, just in case.

That’s 88 hours of your whole year devoted to God outside of your home—about the time you’d spend working and commuting for just two weeks. That’s it.

You have 8,760 hours to spend in 2014. Is it impossible to commit barely 1% of that time to thanksgiving, communion, and prayer? Does your faith make up less than 1% of your identity? After all, what we do reveals more about us than what we say.

The average American spends about 1,643 hours each year watching TV. A lot of us spend at least that much time on the internet, too. We spend at least 2,000 hours sleeping, and at least 2,000 hours working, too, if we have a full time job. Those aren’t necessarily fun, but we get them done, right?

We’re told to spend about three hours a week exercising our bodies. With work and intellectual activities like reading, we spend another 40+ hours exercising our minds. In the interest of improving ourselves holistically, isn’t exercising our souls worth two hours of our time each week?

For my part, I’m good about meeting those obligations, but I’m not good about committing more than that 1% of my life to my Church. In high school and college, I often went to daily Mass (at least partly thanks to Erik, who is fervent and passionate about his faith in a way I truly admire). I also participated in a handful of faith-based activities, which helped me stay thoughtful and devoted throughout the week.

Today, with a full-time job and a long commute, it’s hard for me to make myself do much more. But there’s a daily Mass offered walking distance from my building downtown. I could go several times a week if I wanted to; I just don’t. But I should, and I’m trying. I’m also hoping this blog will keep more of my mind and my time on God.

It’s also easy to supplement that 1% with learning: consume a few verses of the Bible each day; read the Catechism; follow Catholic blogs; have a conversation with your priest, your family, or your friends. Spend a little time talking to someone about your beliefs. Ask a few more questions (even if Google’s the one finding the answers for you, there are thousands of good resources to be discovered). Follow the Pope on Twitter. Read an article on EWTN. And, of course, there’s prayer.

None of us is perfect. But giving 1% of your time to improve your faith life, join your community, and thank your Father doesn’t require perfection. It takes just an hour or two of your week, an ounce of work, and a little bit of purpose.

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