There it is…that four letter word…LENT. Yes, it’s a different kind of four letter word than we are accustomed to thinking of, yet still it does contain some negative connotations. Believe it or not, Lent is just around the corner. It always seems to sneak up on us, right around Valentine’s Day or the Super Bowl.
Whenever it arrives, it brings with it the dreaded interior question: “What will I give up for Lent?” or perhaps we’ve reframed this, as we are often taught to do, and ask ourselves: “What will I do for Lent?” If you are like me, I usually wait until Fat Tuesday/Mardi Gras/Shrove Tuesday/Pancake Tuesday (take your pick) until I really get serious about thinking what change I want to make in my life for the next six weeks.
This year, instead of waiting until the last minute, I invite you to join me in starting to think about Lent now, a good three weeks ahead of time! Why the change? Why not procrastinate again like all the other years and make a game day decision? Or even call an audible on Ash Wednesday itself , just as the ashes are being placed on our foreheads?
I propose that starting now you allow Jesus to spend some time in quiet prayer with you and make the decision together, through some back and forth deep listening and discernment. It may be helpful to remind ourselves of the what. What, afterall, is the point of doing anything at all? Well, we know from our Catechism that Lent has three components for us to focus on : prayer, fasting and almsgiving. The manifestation of these three can take many different forms. Perhaps the best question you can pose to Jesus during prayer is “What are you calling me to?” or “How can I best deepen my relationship with you?” That is the point - Yes! As Ignatius says in the Spiritual Exercises, to know Jesus more intimately, to love him more intensely, and to follow him more closely.
Simply put, Lent is the period on the liturgical calendar that we specifically set aside to walk with Jesus, be present to him with a focus and intent that may not be there at other times of our busy year. To remind ourselves of why we call ourselves Catholic, or Christian or followers of Christ. Yes, we have to earn that label or otherwise we literally don’t walk the talk.
Now, to some practicalities. Again, if you are like me, you most certainly have done the tried and true Lenten techniques of giving up chocolate or sweets or alcohol (or maybe just giving up that glass of wine with dinner Monday - Thursday but allowing yourself to imbibe on the weekends). I remember vividly that my dad would give up his nightly martini for Lent, only to drink a scotch every night. I heard a friend of a friend gave up IPA beer, not all beer, just his beloved IPAs. One year I gave up coffee even though I drink decaf, so really what was the point of that?
Did not ingesting chocolate or alcohol or coffee really bring me closer to Jesus or deepen my relationship with him? Nope - not really. It was more an exercise of willpower to be honest. I have found a few practices of past Lents that have strengthened my relationship to Jesus. One is not listening to any music, podcasts or the radio when in my car. This may strike you as a bit odd but hear me out. Pre-pandemic I was in the car two hours each weekday on my commute and I have a very set routine of what I listen too: a little sports talk radio (Murph and Mac on KNBR anyone?), NPR, and then I sprinkle in a steady rotation of 4-5 of my favorite podcasts. When I cut that all out - it’s just silence. Lots and lots of silence along stretches of I-280. I take that quiet time to pray ~ to talk to Jesus ~ to ponder my life, my hopes, my dreams, my struggles. I literally turn off the distractions and listen to what Jesus has to tell me.
The other meaningful Lenten practice is what I did last year, which was to send a handwritten note to someone every day of Lent. So I stocked up on some packages of notes from the Dollar Store and got my supply of stamps. Each morning I set my alarm 10 minutes earlier than normal and right after I woke up and before going on my walk, I sat down at my desk and jotted off a note of hello. Then on my walk I happily deposited the note into the corner mailbox.
How did this simple practice bring me closer to Jesus? Well, Jesus teaches us to love one another and in today’s world of texts, tweets and emojis, I can think of no better, albeit counter-cultural and perhaps considered by some “old fashioned”, way to say I love you to those in my life than a simple note popped into the mail. And when I express that love to others, I am also expressing my love for Jesus and receiving his love of me.
Maybe this blog post has inspired you to think about Lent a bit earlier this year and try something new and different. Mix it up from past Lents and ask yourself: What Lenten practice can bring me closer to Jesus? And perhaps try to avoid that last minute rushed decision
Ellen Kelly is a spiritual director. She earned a MTS from The Jesuit School of Theology