Think of all the input that most of us encounter during the day. There’s television, the radio, e-mail, text messaging, and Internet sites like Facebook and Twitter.
It’s not uncommon to see people at dinner speaking on their phones while they are checking out the web on their iPads and helping their children with homework. We have become so busy that if we want to focus on one specific area with any depth, we have to deliberately walk away from many of the other inputs.
Thank God for the season of Lent! With its call to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, Lent offers us the opportunity to simplify our lives. It’s like a retreat, but one we can make in the middle of our everyday routines. Lent gives us the chance to step away from all these inputs for a time so that we can focus on the most important input of all: the cross and resurrection of Christ.
The thing about opportunities, however, is that they don’t amount to much if we don’t take hold of them. And for that to happen, we need a plan. We need something specific to commit to that will help us make the most of this time of retreat. So using the traditional Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, let’s develop a plan for how we can reduce all of the distracting input and make ourselves more open to Jesus’ input in our lives.
Prayer. The first step in a plan like this is to look at your schedule and identify a specific time for prayer each day. When will you “come away” with Jesus on retreat? Most people find that the morning is best—before they get so involved in the day that they forget to turn to the Lord. Whatever you decide, make sure it is a time when distractions and obligations are at a minimum.
If we can find a time—and a place—that is free from distraction, we stand a better chance of feeling Jesus’ presence and sensing his guidance in our lives. We also stand a better chance of carrying the blessings of our time with Jesus into the rest of our day.
As you are thinking about a commitment to prayer, recall Jesus’ words: “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites” (Matthew 6:5). “In praying, do not babble like the pagans” (6:7). “When you pray, go to your inner room . . . and pray to your Father” (6:6). In none of these did Jesus say, “If you want to pray” or “Should you choose to pray.” No, he said, “When you pray.” He is assuming that we are going to pray. Now, if Jesus is making that assumption, then it’s clear that he expects us to pray.
As for how to pray, there are several different ways. Here are just a few:
• Lectio Divina, or praying with the Scriptures
• The Stations of the Cross
• Contemplating the Seven Last Words of Christ
• Joining a prayer group in your parish
• Praying through the Eucharistic prayer from Mass
• Eucharistic adoration
If you don’t already have a consistent way to pray, check with your parish to see what is available. Remember, prayer is a vital part of any retreat. It’s a crucial ingredient if you want to step away from all the noisy input around you.
Fasting. Have you ever heard of the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment? Begun in 1960, it was a series of tests involving a group of young children. Psychologists at Stanford University offered the children two options: either they could have one marshmallow immediately, or they could wait fifteen minutes and receive two marshmallows instead. According to the researchers, only about one-third of the children were able to hold out for the double reward.
What is true for these children is true for the rest of us, although to varying degrees. We tend to like instant gratification. Many of us have no problem binge-watching a television show or staying up late surfing the Internet. Like the children in the marshmallow test, we can find it hard to resist the quick fix.
Contrast this with the Lenten practice of fasting. This ancient practice dates back to the earliest days of the Bible. Moses fasted on Mount Sinai when he received the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:27-28). Jesus fasted for forty days in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-2). Paul fasted after his conversion (Acts 9:1-9). The Church elders in Antioch fasted before sending Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey (Acts 13:3). They all fasted because they knew that God blesses us when we deny ourselves some kind of pleasure so that we can draw closer to Jesus and strengthen our resolve to live a holy life.
Breakthroughs. Perhaps the greatest blessing that comes from fasting is what we might call a “breakthrough.” A breakthrough happens when we are finally able to push past some barrier that has previously held us back. To one degree or another, we all need breakthroughs, whether it’s from the harmful ways we act, the unhealthy ways we relate to people, or in the form of a new insight that can help us live a more peaceful and loving life.
This Lent, try making a list of some of the key areas in your life that need a breakthrough. Then, as you take up whatever fast you have chosen, keep asking the Lord to help you break through these barriers.
A Fasting Plan. Like prayer, you will do much better with fasting if you set a plan for yourself. Here are some broad objectives that you can use to help you build this plan:
1. State your objective to the Lord. Write down what kind of changes or breakthroughs you would like to see: growing closer to Jesus, communicating better in your marriage, overcoming anger, or something else.
2. Set your specific form of fasting, and try your best to stay faithful to it. No eating between meals? Smaller meals? One night of no television? Fasting from harsh words? Choose something that is challenging but not impossible. The key is to try your best and ask Jesus to help you.
3. Use your fast—your empty stomach, your time away from the television, your habit of holding your tongue—as a reminder to turn to Jesus, to thank him for his love, and to ask him for a breakthrough.
4. Expect to see results. Remember Jesus’ promise: All that you ask for in prayer, believe that you will receive it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24). Use this verse as a reminder for yourself every time you are tempted to break your fast. Jesus wants to bless you!
5. Forgive yourself. If you should falter at some point, don’t let it hold you down. Simply turn to the Lord, and ask him for more grace. Then start over again, knowing that God’s mercy can overcome any fault or failing.
The Cry of the Poor. There are two important points when it comes to almsgiving. The first involves having a heart for those in need. The second involves deciding to do as much as we can to help the needy. Pope Francis has told us that almsgiving is “a gesture of sincere attention to those who approach us and ask for our help” (Jubilee Address of April 9, 2016).
So what can you do? Again, here are some suggestions to help you make a plan:
1. Look through your home and set aside all the clothes you no longer wear, the tools and appliances you no longer use, or the extra food sitting in your pantry. Gather all of this together, and donate it to your local St. Vincent de Paul Society, your parish food bank, or your city’s homeless shelter.
2. Evaluate your finances and decide how much money you can donate this Lent. Donate to organizations like Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Charities, or a local charitable organization.
3. Many organizations offer the chance to “adopt” a family in need. Search these out, and see if you can make a financial commitment each month to this family.
4. In the same address that we mentioned previously, Pope Francis said that almsgiving “is a gesture of love that is directed at those we meet.” To this end, he encourages us to “stop and look in the face, in the eye, of that person who is asking” for my help. Many organizations sponsor soup kitchens, community centers, and homeless shelters. See if there is an opportunity to get involved, even if it’s just for the season of Lent.
Simplify Your Life. Let’s try to simplify our lives during this Lenten season. Let’s cut down on the noise and cut back on the distracting inputs. Let’s make it a point to draw closer to Jesus and our families.
Lamenting the challenge of actually following through on our good intentions, St. Paul once said, “The willing is ready at hand, but doing the good is not.” (Romans 7:18). Make a change this Lent! Come up with a forty-day plan, and try to discipline yourself to carry it out. Together, let’s simplify our lives so that we can draw closer to Jesus in prayer, experience breakthroughs, and touch Jesus by reaching out to the “least” of his brothers and sisters (Matthew 25:40).