This Lent, Retreat from the Ordinary

Different for Lent

By Chris Sparks

Did you forget to make your Lenten resolution in time for Ash Wednesday?

If you didn't, you're not alone. Almost every year, I hit Ash Wednesday, realize I need to think through what I want to do for Lent this year, and miss the first few days of doing it.

But why give anything up for Lent? Why do anything different?

Well, the heart of the answer to that question is love. Lent is a time of fasting and abstinence, not so that we suffer, but fundamentally so that we spend time with the One who loves us, and to Whom we owe everything.

We live in an age of endless distractions, of incredible complexity (health insurance! Taxes! The daily news!), and a tremendous loss of faith. We must consciously set aside time to become still, to listen with our heart, to place ourselves in God’s presence by attending to His Word in Sacrament, in Church, in Scripture, in the lives of the saints, in the world around us, in our neighbors. As Christians ever have — as the Jewish saints did before Christ walked the earth — we must retreat from the ordinary.

In some fashion, we must step back from our ordinary routines, all the usual demands on us, and all the compromises and unhealthy coping mechanisms that usually get us through our days, in order to once again consolidate and confirm our awareness of God, our continued relationship with Him, and recognize once again His love for us so that we may, with thanks and praise, love Him rightly in return.

It’s no coincidence that Christ retreated to the desert before beginning His public ministry, or the prophets of the Old Testament frequently found their way to a mountain in the emptiness. The desert has a clarifying effect. The sun and sand and dryness scrub away all the extras. The mountain removes you from ordinary life. It sets you apart from everyday concerns and heightens your sense of what’s ultimately, absolutely essential.

Our Lenten practices — giving up some sort of food, or entertainment, or sin, or bad habit, or what have you — draw us back from the world, the flesh, and the devil. They call us to alertness on our way through life, to make sure we’re headed in the right direction, walking steadily to Christ on the Cross, the sign of our salvation. Have we lost sight of Christ? Have we taken our eyes off Him and begun to sink beneath the waves of this world? Look at Christ again. Set aside the distractions. Set aside the extra. Indeed, set aside what’s necessary for this life, and take up what’s necessary for supernatural life.

A fast makes us hungry again. It frees us, focuses us, reminds us, and removes us. It reduces our attachments to unimportant things and focuses us once again on the essentials — not the type of food, or the flavor, or the infinite subtleties of the gourmand’s menu, but food. Simple sustenance. We are reminded of the incredible feast for the senses offered us by food when we fast, because things regain their savor. Our appetite is cleansed. We are removed a bit from our gluttony, trained to not simply follow our appetites wherever they may lead. Outlast the temptation, and the attachment is reduced. Outlast the craving, and an appetite for healthier alternatives may take its place. Follow wisdom, and not desire; follow a rightly ordered conscience, and not a disordered appetite; follow the way of wisdom, the hard way, the rocky way. Saint Faustina Kowalska saw clearly the consequences of the easy and the hard paths:

One day, I saw two roads. One was broad, covered with sand and flowers, full of joy, music and all sorts of pleasures. People walked along it, dancing and enjoying themselves. They reached the end without realizing it. And at the end of the road there was a horrible precipice; that is, the abyss of hell. The souls fell blindly into it; as they walked, so they fell. And their number was so great that it was impossible to count them. And I saw the other road, or rather, a path, for it was narrow and strewn with thorns and rocks; and the people who walked along it had tears in their eyes, and all kinds of suffering befell them. Some fell down upon the rocks, but stood up immediately and went on. At the end of the road there was a magnificent garden filled with all sorts of happiness, and all these souls entered there. At the very first instant they forgot all their sufferings (Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, 153).

So it is with Lenten fasting and abstinence. So it is with surrendering the goods of this world. When we temporarily set aside the blessings given us by God, we can return our attention to God Himself. After all, as our senses become alive once again to the wonders around us — as absence makes the heart grow fonder — we once again feel the penetrating force of the question, “If creation is this wonderful, what must the Creator be like?”

So sharpen yourself once again this Lent. Surrender the things you’ve attached so much importance to, and refocus on the people who matter most: on God and His saints; on your family and friends; on your enemies, whom you are summoned by Christ to love and forgive, to pray and do good for.

Lent is a chance to stop (or at least slow down), and see what’s working and what’s not, and get ready for a good celebration of Easter. So make those Lenten resolutions with prayer and attentiveness to the wisdom of the Church. Spend time discerning:

  • What is your greatest vice?
  • What virtue most needs work in your life?
  • What have you been meaning to donate, in terms of time, talent, treasure, or from the clutter in your house?
  • What are you richest in (money; time; talent, including the ability to make friends, to host gatherings, or other, seemingly ordinary gifts)?
  • What are the greatest needs in your family? In your neighborhood? In your parish?
  • How can you use your riches to help meet those greatest of needs?
  • What devotions do you want to try out?
  • What intentions should you add to your list as you perform your usual devotions?

For the love of God, live Lent well, walking the Way, mind fixed on the Truth, and drawing Life from the Sacraments. Pray for me, please; I’ll pray for you.

Chris Sparks serves as senior book editor for the Marian Fathers. He is the author of the Marian Press book How Can You Still Be Catholic? 50 Answers to a Good Question.

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