Embracing Lent can help the mind, body and soul, writes Wendy Grace
It is good to look at Lent as kind of a spiritual spring clean. A time to deepen your faith and enter into Jesus’ invitation to spend 40 days with him. Lent is an invitation to enter with Jesus into 40 days of prayer, fasting and helping others. The first step is to embrace Lent rather than seeing it as a time of custom and fasting. Lent really can be a gift and really can help us be happier. Lent offers some beautiful scripture to reflect on in the Liturgy of the hours. It can offer a time to reflect when life is increasingly hectic.
During Lent is a good time to think about the choices we are making in our lives. We are asked to stop and reflect upon our choices and who we are becoming in the process. Typically we make sacrifices during Lent so we can rid ourselves of our selfish desires and make room for God, at least that is how it's meant to work! Some of the best sacrifices you can make during Lent are perhaps ones which combine prayer and action, which benefits you spiritually and others around you. In Ireland we certainly have embraced this tradition of giving during Lent, a simple example that every school-child knows are the Trocáire boxes filled throughout the country.
We live in a world where everything is available at an instant, and this can make it difficult during Lent to give up on any of the aspects of our comfortable life. Really this can be done in the smallest of ways the help us learn about self discipline. This is a quality which is not often recognised or respected within today's society. For example if you love salt and vinegar on your chips – forgo this little pleasure for Lent. Although it sounds like a small gesture, it can be tough. Over time it gets easier to sacrifice the salt and vinegar and then it is much easier to start contemplating mastering self discipline over other things – the next step might be not having the chips at all!
Back in January I wrote about taking up something rather than giving up something. By now I am sure many of those resolutions seem like a distant memory. Use Lent as a time to take stock. You could also think of Lent as 40 days to get spiritually fit. Why not break into a spiritual sweat. Watch your spiritual calorie intake (avoiding all fatty, indulgent and sweet TV programmes or magazines or even conversations). Swap this for a good diet of nutritious choices (prayer, spiritual reading, good works, learning about the lives of saints) and think how healthy you'd be spiritually! Ultimately Lent is so much more than giving up chocolate or alcohol, it is a time to prepare for Easter, to reflect and improve our relationship with God, and if the world is a better place because of our small undertakings this Lent then all the better, and you might even decide to continue to break those bad habits you looked at during Lent.
When we make these little sacrifices we can recognise God in our everyday lives. To spend a short time during the year limiting and making little sacrifices we really are being counter cultural. Pleasure and self-gratification are offered everywhere and this can be very difficult, so during Lent put your hope and trust in God. And when you are about to pry open the biscuit tin, remind yourself how much we need God in our everyday lives!
During Lent you can take a look at how you can combine what you are giving up with how you can give back. For example what about giving up Facebook for Lent? How much time would you save by not perusing what everyone is up to? Could that time that you’re saving be used better elsewhere. Even if you only use Facebook for 20 minutes a day, could you call an elderly relative that might be lonely in that time. What about giving up watching your favourite television programme during Lent and spending that hour a week doing some spiritual reading or putting time aside to learn about a specific area of your faith you are unsure of. You could of course go further and fast from watching TV on Wednesdays and Fridays. Think of the extra hours you have gained, can you now use that time to volunteer somewhere? Maybe you have decided to give up coffee or alcohol during Lent? Imagine if you took the money you spent on your daily cup of coffee each day for 40 days how much that would add up to and how much of a difference that money could make to a worthy cause.
There is no better way to start Lent than by making sure you are marked on your forehead with the sign of your faith. You may be the only one in the office with ashes on your forehead but it is a powerful witness. I remember last year's Ash Wednesday being encouraged by the other people attending lunchtime Mass in Dublin’s city centre. Heading out onto Grafton Street, yes the numbers with an ashy blob on their foreheads was fewer but I knew those looking at me funnily remembered what that mark on my forehead was and who knows what impact that little sign of faith had on those people.
Pope Benedict provided us with some spiritual treasure to reflect on during some of his Lenten talks. It is very worthwhile to think about what he said. He tells us that Lent is not meant to be primarily an individual journey of self discipline. Lent is not a solitary climb up a mountain but a journey which we go on with the whole Church. It is important therefore during Lent to rediscover our faith community around us in prayer groups, with friends and of course your local parish.
Lent is a time to do something 'big' in your faith. Jesus said “Repent and believe in the Gospel”. We are really called to conversion to uncover the superficial elements of our lives. As Benedict himself said: "To be converted means to change direction along the way of life — not for a slight adjustment, but a true and total change of direction. Conversion is to go against the current, where the 'current' is a superficial lifestyle, inconsistent and illusory, which often draws us, controls us and makes us slaves of evil, or in any case prisoners of moral mediocrity. It is not a simple moral decision to rectify our conduct of life, but it is a decision of faith, which involves us wholly in profound communion with the living and concrete person of Jesus.”
Each day of Lent we’re invited to remain with Jesus, to try and learn from Him and follow Him. This is to help to lead us to experience the full joy of Easter. You will surprise yourself of how switching off the TV or deleting the Facebook app on your phone for 40 days will give you the little graces (and time needed) to begin that real encounter with God.