Lent: Get Ready, Get Set…

Want to progress spiritually this Lent? Set a goal

Before saying “Go,” take some time to reflect on your life. The Church provides us with 40 days to improve our spiritual life. It’s a time to clear out the cobwebs, recharge our batteries and to get in shape spiritually.

Regardless of the metaphor, Lent provides us an opportunity to put aside the things that keep us from getting close to God and adopt new habits that bring us closer to God. However, figuring out what’s keeping us from God and what will bring us closer to God requires some reflection and thought, not just randomly picking something to give up for Lent.

Just as we do an examination of conscience before Confession, preparation for Lent should include an examination of our entire lives – our habits, our activities, how we spend our time, the choices we make, the things we do, the things we don’t do. Which of these activities give us life? Which sap us of our energy? Which, in hindsight, could rightly be considered a waste of time?

Once we’ve had a chance to examine our lives, fast forward to Easter. Based on our examination of our lives, what do we want to be different in 40 days than they are now? Set a goal. It doesn’t have to be a huge goal, but it should be something that you are working toward. It could be as simple as being more patient with family members.

When you have your goal in mind, a simple, three-step exercise can help you get there. Commonly used in business planning, it can easily be applied to our Lenten practice, as well. It’s summarized in three questions: What should I start doing? What should I stop doing? What should I keep doing but do better? Your Lenten practices flow from the answers to these questions.

Start doing. One obvious thing I can do to be more patient with the members of my household is to pray for patience. But beyond that, I can take the emphasis off my impatience by turning outward, toward those whom I love. First, how often do I thank God for the people in my life? More importantly, how often do I express that gratitude to those people? One concrete step I can take each day during Lent is to do something – the proverbial random act of kindness – for one of my family members to show my gratitude.

Stop doing. Well, I could just stop being impatient. But if that’s too much to ask all at once, what sacrifices can I make during Lent that will help me be more patient? Do social media and television keep me from giving family members my full attention? Then maybe I should stop doing those things for a while. Or maybe I just need to be more mindful of my family. That’s where “giving up” comes in. Every time I give up a treat (chocolate, soda, whatever), I can use it as an opportunity to recall my love for my family and to pray for patience. If the sacrifice is more than giving up for the sake of giving up, if it points us to a greater good, then that sacrifice can be really beneficial.

Keep doing, but do better. Presumably, I’m already praying for the members of my household. But my Lenten practice could include being more mindful in my prayer. I can set aside a few minutes of extra prayer time each day during which I imagine the face of each person in my household and ask God specifically to care for that person.

A spiritually fulfilling Lent starts with the end in mind: a practical goal. To reach that goal, figure out what you will start doing, stop doing, and keep doing, and align those things with your Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Then, when Easter arrives, you can see how far you’ve come and how much closer you’ve gotten to God.

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Mindfulness at the Naval Academy

How to avoid “going through the motions” spiritually

Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in Sunday Mass at the U.S. Naval Academy chapel. This “chapel” was bigger than some cathedrals I’ve been in, with a huge dome and tall stained glass windows.

Naval_Academy

The congregation was made up largely of midshipmen (many of whom were women) in their dress uniforms, adding an additional element of respect and sense of history to the service.

A student had recently died, a fact that the priest announced at the beginning of Mass and reflected on in the homily. This event had obviously moved the priest, taken an emotional toll, and, presumably, increased his pastoral workload as he counseled grieving students.

These types of traumatic events have the potential to draw us closer to God. However, all the emotion and attention to temporal details can also overwhelm us, with the result that we neglect our own spiritual needs as we attend to others.

In the priest’s case, he noticed that was rushing through the scripture readings as he prayed the daily divine office. He was checking the box of his obligation rather than finding spiritual nourishment.

He knew that Jesus, after healing many sick, “went off to a deserted place, where he prayed.” (Mark 1:35) The priest recognized that, in order to be effective spiritually, he had to take the time to really nourish himself with scripture.

How often do we go through the motions of our spiritual life – attending Mass, serving others, or saying our prayers – without reflecting on why we are doing those things or how they can bring us closer to God? Doing all those things is good, but we need to do them mindfully for them to have value.

The priest’s solution to regaining that sense of mindfulness was to pick out a single scripture reading, reflect on it during the week, and use it to guide his actions and deepen his prayer.

It’s a good practice for us, as well: select a single reading, perhaps from the Sunday or daily readings, or a personal favorite, and spend some time reflecting on it during the upcoming week. See where this reading leads you by the end of the week.

What reading will you choose?