The season of spiritual growth draws near (this coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, a day of fasting and abstinence) . Lent is a focused time to bring us to a new life in Christ. The Church encourages us to partake in a transformation through the three pillars of Lent — prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Those pillars come straight out of the Bible, in verses such as: “Give alms. … Pray to your Father. … Fast without a gloomy face …” (Matthew 6:1-18).
“The key to fruitful observance of these practices is to recognize their link to baptismal renewal,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops states on its website. “We are called not just to abstain from sin during Lent, but to true conversion of our hearts and minds as followers of Christ. We recall those waters in which we were baptized into Christ’s death, died to sin and evil, and began new life in Christ.”
“Lent is a time of preparation for a major event,” Msgr. Stephen Rossetti, author, psychologist, expert on priestly spirituality and wellness issues, and research associate professor at The Catholic University of America, explained in an interview with the Register. “We are preparing for Easter. One of the most important ways is to ‘Turn away from sin, and be faithful to the Gospel,’ as we say on Ash Wednesday.”
Msgr. Rossetti noted that we pray the Confiteor at the beginning of every Mass to confess our sins. “It opens us up for the Eucharistic moment in the same way that Lent opens us up to the great grace of the Resurrection,” he said. “Lent includes repentance, but, primarily, it’s an incredible season of grace.”
Since many come to repentance during Lent, Msgr. Rossetti said that it is a very moving time to be a priest in the confessional, welcoming back people who have not been to confession in a long time or are mired in serious sin. “You see the burden lifted from them,” he said. “Often, they will cry tears of relief.”
“It is important, however, that we don’t just stop with confessing our sins, but that we believe in and accept God’s infinite mercy and forgiveness,” Msgr. Rossetti explained. “Often people come in nervous and burdened and leave feeling liberated and renewed. That transformation is a microcosm of the entire Lenten season — letting go of our burdens and being freed in the Lord.”
Father Joshua Ehli, pastor of the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Bismarck, North Dakota, suggested that we use Lent as a time to grow in virtue.
“Find some small area where you need virtue,” he said. “Maybe sacrificing a little time in the morning for prayer so that, by the end of 40 days, the virtue is formed. Then it will be easier to continue, as opposed to abstaining from something and, when Lent is over, jumping back in. It’s still good, but I love the idea of doing things that will continue to bring about holiness the day after Lent.”
Father Ehli shared a story of such a Lenten sacrifice while he was a seminarian at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.
“During lunch one day, a dear friend from Washington, D.C., told a group of us from North Dakota, ‘You guys eat like it’s the last bit of food left in the world,’” he said. “It was true; the fork never left our hands.”
That Lent, Father Ehli decided to be intentional about relaxing and putting his fork down to engage in conversation.
“It was a conversion for me: dying to the appetite,” he said. “I was eating less and enjoying people more. I did it for 40 days and then just kept doing it. It was a shift in what was most important at the table: Instead of just eating, it became about an encounter.”
Other Lenten Stories
Barbara Golder, a physician, attorney, bioethicist and award-winning author from Chattanooga, Tennessee, recalled a Lent 30 years ago that still reminds her to stop and smell the roses.
“The best Lent ever was when I planned nothing,” she said. “I just said ‘No’ to new engagements and let God’s transcendence fill the time. It slowed me down not only for Lent, but also, for about six months after, I had more freedom from the self-imposed need to produce. It gave me great peace — hard to come by in my life. It was an enduring lesson.”
Teresa McKeown, a wife and young mother of two in Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, said a Lent that made big changes in her life was when she went to adoration and asked Jesus what he wanted her to do for Lent. “The answer came loud and clear,” she said. “Suffer and pray alongside the one who knew and loved me the most: the Blessed Mother.”
During that Lent, she reflected often on the Blessed Mother’s pain at seeing her Son suffer, all while trusting in God’s will. “But she was just as human as we are,” McKeown said. “From the moment the angel Gabriel came to announce that she was to be the mother of Jesus, Mary said, ‘Let it be done to me according to thy word.’”
Through meditating on Mary’s surrender during difficult moments, McKeown said she worked on learning to surrender and to trust in God. She also said that it helped her to feel closer to the Blessed Mother, a relationship that still brings her peace and comfort three years later.
Mary Fleck, a mother of six and a first-grade aide at St. Anne’s School in Bismarck, shared a sweet story about how Lent changed one of her children. “Our second son sucked his thumb pretty much from the day he was born,” she explained. “As he got older, and we thought it was time for him to give up the thumb-sucking, no amount of incentives, rewards or encouragement could motivate him to give up the thumb.”
“One Lent, when he was 7, he announced on Ash Wednesday that he was giving up his thumb-sucking for Lent. After that day, he never sucked his thumb again. For us he could not give it up, but for Jesus he could.”