Lent is the Christian season of penitence, traditionally practiced through the triple disciplines of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. It marks the period when Christ spent 40 days in the desert to prepare for his earthly ministry. Also, it is common for those partaking in the season to give up something in particular. However, it should also be emphasized that adding new practices of spiritual devotion is equally fitting for this sacred period of cleansing, contemplation, and renewal. The following are some of my personal practices and concepts that I have used to deepen my Lenten Journey:
- Carry a small stone or piece of coal around with you in your pocket or purse. Not only is this evocative of the “ashes and dust” referred to on Ash Wednesday, but in Celtic tradition, burnt out embers were used to symbolize angels (since “ember” and “angel” had the same root word in Irish Gaelic) and were often carried as a symbol of spiritual guidance in times of persecution. Stones in general have great symbolic meaning in the Judeo-Christian world. Moses brought forth water from a rock when leading the children of Israel across the desert, demonstrating life brought from death. In contrast, Christ was tempted to turn stones into loaves of bread during his sojourn in the wilderness, but in refusing to do so, He embraced His own destiny of death, and the blood He would sweat upon the rock of Gethsemane. So carrying a stone keeps us mindful of our own inevitable passing from this world, and the “stones of remembrance” that will one day stand over us when he are laid to rest in sacred ground. It also is reminiscent of the Japanese practice of piling stones to remember deceased ancestors. However, rocks also bespeak of victory as well; victory of the shepherd boy David who defied the mighty Goliath with five small stones; victory of Christ’s presence on earth, which if not acknowledged by man, would have been acclaimed by the very rocks; and most importantly, the victory over death wrought by Christ when the great stone over the tomb rolled back on Easter Sunday.
- Take in more spiritually-focused reading material, music, and cinematic productions. There is a myriad of deeply edifying artistic material to delve into, but oftentimes we become side-tracked by more trivial variations. Not all of it even need be directly and overtly religious, but should put one in a state of mind to contemplate deeper realities that emanate from God, such as the meaning of sacrificial love and redemptive suffering for a greater cause. Nourish your soul this Lent, especially when you may be physically fasting. There are countless suggestions I could give for material that has helped me in my own spiritual life, but I will try and keep this list basic for practical purposes (Note: This list is certainly not for everyone, and all media material should be explored further at the reader’s own discretion and researched by parents for age appropriateness):
Books: The Prey of the Priest Catchers: The Lives of the 40 Martyrs by Leo Knowles; The Autobiography of a Hunted Priest by Fr. John Gerard; Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery by Eric Metaxas; Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom by John O’Donohue; Meeting the Incarnate God: From the Human Depths to the Mystery of Fidelity by Metropolitan Philip & Joseph Allen; Miracles Do Happen: God Can Do the Impossible by Sr. Briege McKenna; The Business of Heaven: Daily Readings from C.S. Lewis by C.S. Lewis; The Way of the Saints: Prayers, Practices, and Meditations by Tom Cowan, New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton, Wisdom of the Celtic Saints by Edward C. Sellner
Music: Loreena McKennitt (tracks: “The Dark Night of the Soul”, “Dante’s Prayer”, “Skellig”, “Cymbeline”, “Never-Ending Road”, “Breaking the Silence”, “Beneath a Phrygian Sky”, etc.); Lydia McCauley (“Aeternitas”, “Hope Grows”, “Mother’s Heart”, “Assisi”, etc.); Karliene (“Sansa’s Hymn”, “Rains of Castamere”, “Let It End”, “Lament for Boromir”, etc.); Audrey Assad (“I Shall Not Want”, “Death Be Not Proud”, etc.); Eurielle (“Carry Me”, “Song of Durin”, etc.); John Michael Talbot (“Like a Deer”, “Pass Through My Will”, “I Found My Beloved”, “God Alone Is Enough”, “Come Holy Spirit”, “Confession”, “Holy Darkness”, “Come to the Quiet”, etc.)
Films: A Man For All Seasons (1966), I Confess (1953), Scarlet and the Black (1983), Don Bosco (1988), The Song of Bernadette (1943), Joan of Arc (mini-series; 1999), Amazing Grace (2006), The Miracle (1959), The Robe (1953), Quo Vadis (1951), The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), David and Bathsheba (1951), Francis of Assisi (1961), Therese (2004), The Redeemer (Fr. Patrick Peyton; 1959), Son of God (2014), The Passion of the Christ (2004), Braveheart (1995), Gladiator (2000), Spartacus (1960), Roots (1977), The Hunger Games (2012-15), The Lord of the Rings (2001-03), The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2006), The Enemy Below (1957), Between Heaven and Hell (1956), Garden of Evil (1954), The Assisi Underground (1985), Underground (1941), Miracle of the Bells (1948), Le Miserables (2012), Prince of Foxes (1949), Cyrano de Bergerac (1950), The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), Richard III (1955)
- In all things, see God. Throughout the day, keep either a written diary or take simple mental notes on all the things you have seen and how they make you think of God. This can either be in the form of enjoyable things (you see the first flower of spring and think of God’s glory as Creator and Sustainer of all life) or not-so-enjoyable tings (you’re fasting, and you think of how Jesus fasted); acts of goodness (you see someone stopping the car to save a stray kitten on the road, or someone helping an elderly woman with her paperwork in a doctor’s office, and you see the hearts of humanity reflecting the Heart of God), or acts of evil (you watch a news report about terrorism, or crime, or ruthless indifference, and you see Christ being nailed to the cross all over again). Then reflect upon how you yourself are going to reflect God’s love in your own life, to bring His “Kingdom Come.” Learn to discern God’s presence in “all that is, and all that is not”; seek him out in the most unlikely places in the distant confines of this world. See Him in the untamed ecstasy of nature and the tumultuous whirlpool of movement on city streets. See Him in eyes that reflect unbounded sky and in those that cannot see past their next appointment. See Him through the cracks of cynicism and pain. See him the in the tortured souls and those who have found peace. See Him in all beings, for we are all His children.
- Have courage and be kind. I know, I know, Disney simplified philosophy, you may say. But it’s true. The two must go together, for it takes courage to be truly kind. Kindness is not some sort of weak, wobbly-kneed virtue to me. Love is kind, and love is the strongest thing there is, the essence of the Divine, for God is Be there for others who need you; start conversations with others even when you’re tired, even when you don’t particularly feel akin to the person. Be patient; be a good listener. Touch base with those long-lost contacts from years gone by on your FB list, share a memory you’ve had with them, and show that you still care. Try to strengthen the relationships you have, help your family more, and strive to sacrifice of yourself for their benefit. Go the extra mile to maintain communication, to heal old wounds, and mend broken bridges. Learn to apologize and to put yourself in others’ shoes. Reach beyond your comfort zones. Make friends from different schooling backgrounds, religious beliefs, ethnic origins, and political persuasions. Share the love of Christ with them that cuts through walls that separate one from another. Try and seek out the best in them, and give the best that is in yourself. Have courage, stand up for the oppressed, the downtrodden, the abused, in whatever way best suits your calling, whether hands on, from a distance, or a bit of both. Use prudential judgment in all that you do, but also remember never to judge too fast nor hold your fists too tightly clenched. Set aside some of your money to spend your money in charitable exercises. Have masses said for you’re the living and dead, purchases small spiritual gifts for those in your life, and write up a note of blessing on each one. Write out all the special things you can remember about that person, and tell that person you are thankful to God for their presence in your life.
- Be what God made you to be, and you will set the world on fire. You are infused with a calling your life, and are on the constant journey to bring that to fruition. In this season of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, consider yourself in a state of decrement. And I don’t just mean discerning whether you are called to marry or enter into religious life; I mean discern, on a daily basis, what God wants you to do, how he wants you to spend your waking hours. Every single day of our lives presents us with opportunities to grow in grace by reaching out to others. “Inspire my heart to do your will,” the old ejaculation goes. Human beings are born sub-creators, and in all our works should be a coursing reality God is present within us and is flowing out through us. For me personally, as an editor, writer, singer, and musician, it is about collection and crafting stories that will leave a meaningful impact, and that ultimately will make people think upon the nature of love, and therefore God. So intensify your prayer life and prioritize your time. Let your former idleness become time of sacred stillness, when you can clear your mind of earthly worried and listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit. Pray the traditional prayers of the faith, such as the Act of Contrition, frequently; make the Sign of the Cross with enhanced reverence. Consecrate your body, mind, heart, and soul to the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts. And if you have a crucifix, as I do hanging on the wall along the stairway, focus on it. Meditate on it. Spread out your arms and lean your back against the wall alongside it. Ask Christ to take all the strength of your pride and transform it into the tenderness of His Love. Ask Him to live, and breathe, and move in you, every day of your life. Let the Lamb of God be the blood-red flowers in your gritty, golden desert, the piercing light upon your storm-clouded path.