February 23, 2007

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Making time to listen to the quiet during Lent

Cynthia DewesSome of the starch seems to have gone out of Lent.

It used to be a semi-dreaded period of penance, ushered in by raucous Shrove Tuesday events of excess and fun that would soon be suspended for 40 days. But today, when self-denial is unheard of and any old day can be a Mardi Gras, Lent seems like a blip on the screen.

Not to be too critical, however. In the good old days, there were early morning Masses in every parish which facilitated attending daily Mass during Lent. Thus, my Lenten penance, being a person who never wants to greet the dawn, was to get up in the dark and attend Mass before getting everyone off to school and work.

In those heady days of sufficient priests to go around and then some, frequent devotional opportunities such as Benediction and Stations of the Cross were offered. The sacrament of reconciliation, a.k.a. confession, was also widely available and encouraged. Somehow, it seemed easier then to practice Lenten examination of our spiritual lives.

Well, poor us. Today we’re kind of on our own when it comes to reflection and introspection. Besides that, our lives are so busy that making the best use of time is a continuing struggle. The previous aids to Lenten discipline are not widespread so it’s up to us to make the most of the rich possibilities we’re given in this prelude to Easter.

As usual, if we want something badly enough, we’ll find a way to get it. We can still make a “good Lent,” as we used to say, even in these days of high speed everything. It takes planning and will to spend a few weeks reviewing our spiritual health. And like physical exercise, it’s hard to fit in, but when we do it’s so satisfying we can’t imagine having lived without it.

It seems to me the most important part of Lenten spiritual examination is listening for God’s voice in our hearts. We may call this centering prayer or meditation or whatever, but the point is creating solitude and quiet. We can do this almost anywhere and, if necessary, even the bathroom can be called into service for this purpose.

Other ways to reflect include Bible study alone with a printed guide or in a church group. If we’re lucky, the discipline of reading Scripture daily will continue all year. Reading spiritual books is helpful, and even reading secular ones, such as the novel Gilead, written by Marilynne Robinson, can be a religious experience.

We may have other prayer opportunities, such as special Lenten day or weekend retreats and regular prayer regimens, including a daily rosary or using a Lenten daily prayer book. And prayer should lead us naturally to penance and almsgiving, the other traditional Lenten practices.

We all know that when we examine our consciences we’ll find human failings and, even with a priest shortage, there’s no excuse not to do penance for them. During Lent, parishes offer reconciliation services as well as weekly times for confession.

Certainly in our modern world there are many opportunities to be charitable. The Church offers weekly special collections, and there are worthy causes and ministries, such as right to life, visiting the sick and prisoners, feeding and housing the poor, just waiting to be served.

“O! Happy fault!” as Scripture says. Lent is our chance to prove the truth of that verse.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.) †

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