Questions to Ponder in Early Lent

No sin is private, hurting no one but ourselves.

“Bridges to Contemplative Living with Thomas Merton,” edited by Jonathan Montaldo and Robert G. Toth

I’m using “Bridges to Contemplative Living with Thomas Merton: Lent and Holy Week as a devotional this Lent. The section regarding the week of Ash Wednesday, which ends today, invokes some deep thought.

The concept that “No sin only hurts us” struck me as I read it. I tend to think that I keep the shiny side up around other people. Life at home is a looser interpretation of the Gospel commands. So I am pondering that quote today.

The Ash Wednesday section asks some good questions about our faith journey that I also wanted to share:

  • How has your personal understanding of Lent, sin and conversion changed as you have matured in your spiritual life?
  • What hoped-for change in your mind and heart do you pray for this Lent?
  • In what ways have you, by grace and your own inner work, grown beyond your former way of life?

The nice thing about growing is there’s always more to do. These questions make good prompts for meditating and journaling. We can go before the Lord in contemplation to ask what His answers for us would be.

Bridges to Contemplative Living is a series from the Merton Institute for Contemplative Living, which closed in 2012. Ave Maria Press still publishes the books.

Make a Friendship Resolution

The pandemic slugs on, giving us a time to think about how we will do things differently once it’s over. Lent is a wonderful time to prayerfully consider resolutions about friendship. Of course, we know full well that the only person we can control, with God’s grace, is ourselves.

I can across two friendship resolutions that I made a couple of years ago. They still feel fresh to me. So I’m going to bring them top-of-mind as things open us.

No. 1: I will begin looking for the persons of peace in activities and groups. I will cultivate a deeper, ongoing relationship with these individuals.

No. 2: In all relationships, I will treat the other as someone to be known and loved rather than someone to try to fix or change.

It will be interesting to see how a year of online conversations and physical separateness will change our relationships. I know I’m going to have to overcome what I call “introvert inertia.” I’d rather stay home and deal with folks online. I will have to push myself to be “in person” again.

How weird this all is came home when I walked up to a pastor that I’ve chatted with regularly online. I had my mask on, as did he. I said something to him and hurried off. It was only then that I realized that he had no idea who I was. We had never met in person before. I look a lot taller on Zoom.

I think these resolutions … building relationships with persons of peace, treating each person as someone to be known and loved … will serve me well online as well as off. They will only happen if I stay open to God’s grace and support.

Ash Wednesday at Home

If you can’t attend church due to the pandemic, here’s an Ash Wednesday service you can do at home.

Write down a list of your sins. Burn the paper in a bowl or ashtray. Then pray:

Let us ask our Heavenly Father to bless these ashes, which we will use as a mark of our repentance. Lord, bless these ashes. Wearing them reminds us that we are from the dust of the earth. Pardon our sins and keep us faithful to the resolutions that we have made for Lent. Help us to prepare well for the celebration of your Son's glorious resurrection.  Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Mark each person’s forehead in the sign of the cross saying, “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.”

Close with this prayer:

Loving Father, today we start Lent. From today, we make a new start to be more loving and kind. Help us to show more concern for the less fortunate, the hungry and the poor. Help us to love you more and speak to you more often. Through Christ our Lord, Amen. 

Take It Seriously

Lent begins tomorrow on Ash Wednesday. Today is Fat Tuesday, the day to party and indulge before the great Lenten fast. Except most people keep indulging and few fast.

This pandemic Lent is an opportunity to renew our faith. Lent, the period of 40 days before Easter with Sundays off, began as a period for converts to prepare themselves for baptism on Easter Vigil (the night before Easter). The church modeled the period on Jesus’ 40 days and nights in the wilderness preparing to start his ministry.

When the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its state religion in fourth century, new Christians who knew little about the faith overwhelmed the church. Many were Christians in name only and continued to practice their pagan religion.

As a result, the church made fasting and renunciation a part of Lent for everyone. The church invited its members to commit or re-commit more deeply to the faith. This also was a strategy to keep the church separate from the pagan culture around it.

Some cultural separation is a good idea for the American church today. Start by participating in a Lenten lifestyle assessment. Here are a few questions to ponder on this Fat Tuesday:

  • How can you make your daily Scripture reading and prayer more meaningful?
  • Can you find an online course or retreat to deepen your practice or your knowledge?
  • What Christian books and biographies have you been meaning to read?
  • What are the places in your life where you routinely exclude the presence of God?
  • What does God want you to give up in your daily life? (Look at use of food, social media, drinking, etc.)

Start preparing today for a Lent that deepens your experience of Christian mindfulness.

Light Tomorrow With Today

The season of Lent is nearly two weeks away. Hopefully it’s the last Lent we’ll spend in a pandemic, so let’s make the most of our difficult situations.

As we plan for the Lenten season, let’s keep our resolutions positive. It’s not just about giving things up. It’s about moving forward in our faith. My theme for Lent 2021 is “Light Tomorrow With Today.” I’m looking at what I can do to increase the light of God in my life.

For example, let’s think about the content we consume. I pick out some books to read or re-read every Lent. I know many people abstain from social media. Since that’s how I see photos and videos of my grandchild these days, I will look at ways to stop “doom-scrolling.” I will see only family/friend/faith content during this time.

My pastor gave a sermon this weekend about what we are taking in. Is it, as Paul would like, “true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy.” The wonderful sermon is below.

Other places to look for positive resolutions include prayer, fasting and giving. If you are in the two-thirds of Americans who are OK financially in the pandemic, you might consider how you can help the one-third who are struggling.

Pray over these Lenten resolutions. Then when Ash Wednesday comes, your Lent can become a light for tomorrow.

A Mindful Christian Approach to Easter Vigil

Celebrating Easter Vigil with a Christian mindfulness approach helps the experience to become so much more alive, even during this unique pandemic experience.

We are facing the final illness of a beloved pet, Clarence, in the midst of this quarantine, as well as having a mother-in-law we can’t visit in an assisted living facility that has at least one coronavirus case. It is sad, yet we know that so many other people have it much worse. One benefit of this season is that I have been able to participate more fully in Lent and Holy Week than usual. The Lord is speaking to my heart.

Today He reminds me that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens us (Philippians 4:13). If we mindfully abide in Christ, he gives us the strength we need moment by moment. We need to move forward with our eyes on Him.

Today we renew our baptismal vows, decorate for Easter and make our Easter eggs. It is a day that, for more than two millennia, Christians have taken an attitude of watchfulness and prayer.

All-powerful and ever-loving God, your own Son went down among the dead and rose against in glory. In your goodness raise up your faithful people buried with him in baptism, to be one with him, in the eternal life of heaven.

Listening to God

Let all my world be silent in your presence, Lord, so that I may hear what the Lord God may say in my heart. Your words are so softly spoken that no one can hear them except in a deep silence. But to hear them lifts him who sits alone and in silence completely above his natural powers, because he who humbles himself will be lifted up. He who sits alone and listens will be raised above himself.

Guigo II

Make Sleepless Nights Special

Waking up in the night to think about the pandemic is common. It’s also another opportunity to use Christian mindfulness to enjoy the presence of the Lord.

Sleepless nights are a common problem going back to ancient times. David wrote about a solution to them in Psalm 63:6: “On my bed I remember you. I think of you through the watches of the night.”

The Lord has asked us to cast all our anxiety on Him (1 Peter 5:7) so He will support our efforts to turn our nighttime thoughts to Him.

Once you are awake, consciously work to turn your attention to prayer and worship. Listening to a playlist with worship music, either out loud or on ear buds, can help. Thinking through memorized Bible verses about God’s gifts of love, joy and peace can help. Just turning our attention to gratitude about God’s gifts also works.

As a prayer for Holy Week notes:

Through your Son you taught us, Father, not to be fearful of tomorrow but to commit our lives to your care. Do not withhold your Spirit from us but help us to find a life of peace after these days of trouble.

    Resource: Pray as You Stay

    The wonderful people at Jesuit Media Initiatives have added Pray as You Stay to their Pray as You Go website and app. The support series is “aimed to support you during this time of self-isolation, uncertainty and fear, which we are all going through.”

    So far, two weeks of prayer reflections have been posted. I’ve been using them in the evening before bed to help calm me down.

    Like the daily Pray as You Go, the prayer reflections are between 10 and 13 minutes long, combining music, scripture and reflection. The aim is to help us all become more aware of God’s presence in our lives and to learn to listen to God’s word.