Practical Advice for the Challenge of Lent

Christ in the Desert - by Kramskoy

Entering into the Desert With Christ 

As we approach this Lenten season, we are called to enter the desert with Christ; to turn away from sin and towards our God. Many of us realize that we are called to face difficult questions during this penitential season.  The challenge we face is not only that we ask those questions, but will we take the necessary action? Don’t let this Lent slip by unfulfilled. 

So often, we struggle in this life and fail to understand why we are at this moment not satisfied, especially in these days of continued economic uncertainty. Our families and our nations are slipping deeper into debt, finding it more difficult to make ends meet, even while working harder. Some are unemployed and have been unable to find suitable work even after months and, in some cases, years of searching. And because so many have spent so much living beyond their means, they are unprepared for these difficult and uncertain economic times. 

We should also be concerned for our children’s future and even their present, but not just financially. We should be concerned for their faith and morality. It is hard to imagine a time when the moral climate has been more toxic for our youth, and for us, than it is today. It seems there has never been greater peer pressure on our youth to engage in destructive behavior. In years past, we knew right from wrong and too often chose what was wrong. Today, we seem not even to know right from wrong. Therefore, we face a far more dangerous challenge than we have in the past because we have lost our way and we don’t even seem to acknowledge the fact. We are, however, vaguely aware that all is not as it should be. 

The Emptiness Deep Within – A Call for Conversion and Surrender 

There is an emptiness deep within our very being calling to us to stop and change direction. Do we hear it? Are we humble enough to listen? Are we wise enough to understand? Are we courageous enough to act? Or does our pride tell us that we know better than that small quiet voice of God. Here is a simple truth. God made us. He knows best what we were made for. If we will conform ourselves to His will for us, we will find ourselves back on the right path and then, and only then, will we find peace and experience the blessedness spoken of by Jesus in the Beatitudes. 

When life throws us a wicked curve ball, it seems only natural, what we might call “second-nature”, to look to the world’s solutions for our answers. And that is not all wrong, is it? When we are unemployed, it is prudent to brush up our resumes and work our networks to find that new position. When we are physically sick, it is prudent to seek medical care. It is even normal to see ourselves turn to God in prayer and petition Him for help and solutions. But do we dictate to God what that help and those solutions must be? What we must truly be willing to do, is to turn to Him in humility and trust, committed to faithfully surrendering our lives to His will. That is, we must welcome His answers, His teaching, and His vision (the Divine Plan) for who we are to be, even if those do not conform to our vision for ourselves. 

Now it may seem that this is not practical guidance for our times. But, if we don’t get this right, if we don’t grasp and embrace both who we were made to be and our relationship with the God Who made us, we will get nothing right that truly matters. Earth is not our home, it is simply the place of our journey in faith. We speak of being on the right or wrong path, but we don’t seem to know what that implies… that the path leads somewhere. The right path leads to our blessedness and our reward in heaven. The wrong path leads to condemnation and eternal hell. It is hell that we should fear most. It is God and our home with Him in heaven that we should desire most. 

When we knew these truths and simply failed to live them, we had the hope of repentance and God’s grace to right our ship. But it seems to me that what we also really need today is a renewed knowledge of God and His Divine Plan for us. Dr. Peter Kreeft, in a wonderful little book Back to Virtue, skillfully reminds us of this. A prayerful reading of this book would be a good Lenten exercise. 

Living God’s Divine Plan for Our Lives 

So, what is God’s vision of who we are to be? First and foremost, He wants our hearts. Prophetically, we are taught this by the words given by God to Jeremiah to pass on to us (Jeremiah 17:5-8). Cursed is the man who places his trust in himself alone, whose heart is not turned towards God. But blessed is he whose trust and hope is in the Lord. In Luke’s Gospel (Luke 6), Jesus called the Twelve aside and appointed them to be His apostles. Together with Him, they descended the mountain to where the multitude was gathered and Jesus delivered His Sermon on the Plain. Symbolically, He came down from the heights and met the people where they were, where so many are today… confused and lost; feeling alone and incomplete… and He gave them the only Truth that would satisfy their needs. To those humbly seeking Him, He spoke the words of Beatitude. 

“Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours. Blessed are you who are now hungry, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who are now weeping, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice and leap for joy on that day! Behold, your reward will be great in heaven.” (Luke 6:20-23) 

But to those others who were not seeking Him in humility, He spoke the words of condemnation so as to move them to repentance. 

“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are filled now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will grieve and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for their ancestors treated the false prophets in this way.” (Luke 6:24-26) 

Today’s culture speaks one message, our Lord speaks another. Which will we listen to? I want you to take a crucifix and gaze upon it – see the Incarnate God Who loves you and gave His life for you. His sermon is not empty rhetoric, He lived His words. He does not expect us to do anything that He did not do Himself. He will never place any circumstance in your life in which He leaves you alone. He is with you always. He has shown us that good can come from suffering. Haven’t you experienced this? You encounter some difficult challenge and wonder… nothing could be worse than this, especially at this time, only later to see – maybe after many years – how your life has been blessed as a result; even out of suffering and apparent failure. 

The Opportunity of Lent 

On Ash Wednesday we will begin our observance of the penitential season of Lent. What better time to turn away from our dependency on the world and towards a life of trust and hope in the Lord! The Lord’s Sermon shows us how. We are to practice a detachment from the attractions of the world. This means that we are to turn away from disordered attractions, not all attractions. Not all who are poor find the blessedness that comes only from God, for even the poor can have a disordered attraction for wealth. Not all who are rich are automatically condemned; some know how to apply their wealth for the common good without having a disordered attachment to it. 

During the coming penitential season, we are called to embrace and practice the three pillars of Lent – prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Lent is most of all to be a time of deep conversion for us. These three pillars are central to this conversion and our surrender to the Lord. They are inseparable from one another. 

Prayer 

There is much interest in prayer, but do we really pray as we should? Do we even know how to pray? It is one of the questions I most frequently hear from Catholics; “Can you help me learn to pray? Can you help me find time to pray?” Admitting there is too little space here to give a detailed answer, let’s just commit this Lent to do it.  The Church teaches that Christian meditation should be one of our primary expressions of prayer – for a beginner, that means simply thinking about a truth of the faith, a Person of God, an event in the life of Christ, a passage of scripture, etc. Here are some tried and true ways to do this. 

  • On a daily basis, pray the Rosary.  Why not pray the rosary together with your family this Lent? After the evening meal, gather as a family (or with friends) and pray the vocal prayers of the rosary while thinking about (meditating on) the mysteries – those major events in Christ’s life.
  • On a weekly basis – Friday is an excellent choice – do the same with the Stations of the Cross. There are many good meditations for the Stations, but I particularly benefit from the prayers and meditations of The Way of the Cross by St. Francis of Assisi. A copy of this is easy to find on the internet.
  • Don’t rush through the prayers.  Spend time in them.  And make these prayers a priority in your daily schedule.  Remember, you were not made for earth, but for heaven. Nothing is more important, other than Christ to Whom you pray, for you to know. And by praying together as a family, you will teach your children What and Who is most important.

Fasting 

Fasting and other forms of self-denial, as spiritual practices of materially subduing and controlling the physical appetites of the body, helps us, by God’s grace, to enable the soul to more perfectly and freely pray. I leave it to you to decide what form your fasting will take; reducing consumption of food items, giving up television, going without that unneeded purchase. This is the connection of fasting to prayer and it is the secret to a better, deeper, more joyful life in Christ. But fasting is also connected to almsgiving, for what we save through material fasting and the time saved by giving up a particular activity can be redirected to those who are in greater need.  What a wonderful gift to give yourself and your children! If you have children, meet together as a family and explain what you are doing and why?  Make it a family project. 

Almsgiving 

As I mentioned, fasting enables giving, so let us commit to living within our means, not just for our financial well-being, but also for the good of others. Our children best learn who they are to be by seeing who their parents really are. Let them see us doing without excessive spending so as to remain within our budgets. But especially let them see us doing without even things we can afford so as to help those who have less. Let us commit to avoiding occasions of sin such as immoral movies, but also let them see us spending more time in family prayer and service to others and less in excessive entertainment. This opens our hearts to the needs of others. 

All for the Love of God 

None of these three pillars means anything if not motivated by and through an ever-deepening love for God. Show our children and others what motivates us… the love of God and our love for Him. It is in this practice of the virtues that we overcome, by God’s grace, the practice of vice and possess the blessedness of God. Give ourselves to God, surrender fully to Him, and then we will be rich in what counts. 

May you have a blessed Lenten season.

We value your comments and encourage you to leave your thoughts below.  Please share this article with others in your network.  Thank you!  – The Editors  

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About the Author

Deacon Michael Bickerstaff is the Editor in chief and co-founder of the The Integrated Catholic Life™. A Catholic Deacon of the Roman Rite for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Deacon Bickerstaff is assigned to St. Peter Chanel Catholic Church where he is the Director of Adult Education and Evangelization.

He is a co-founder of the successful annual Atlanta Catholic Business Conference; the Chaplain of the Atlanta Chapter of the Woodstock Theological Center’s Business Conference; and Chaplain of the St. Peter Chanel Faith at Work Business Association and co-founder and Chaplain of the Marriages Are Covenants Ministry, both of which serve as models for similar parish-based ministries.

He and his wife have two adult children, one daughter-in-law and three grandchildren.

NB: The views I express on this site are my own. I am not an official spokesman for either my parish or diocese.

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7 Comments

  1. Timely article full of great thoughts and suggestions as we prepare for Ash Wednesday. I love the thought that Lent is an opportunity. It really is. It’s a time where, as a body of Christ, spend time to strengthen ourselves spiritually. We grow closer to God, offer sacrifices for sin and conversions and well, make our Body stronger–both the Church and our own souls.

    Thanks,
    Mike

  2. Thanks Patti and Theresa! Sorry for the delay in responding. I was away on my pre-Lenten retreat. Yikes! Did I ever need it.

    Deacon Mike

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