When we receive ashes on Ash Wednesday, we may hear these words: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.” The phrase “turn away” implies a change—a change in direction. Yes, Lent is a time for change, but it also is a time for renewal. And change and renewal are not necessarily synonymous.
As we embark on our Lenten journey, we might want to ask ourselves: 1) what behavior of mine would I like to change or modify this Lent? And 2) what motivates me to behave in that way? It is from these motivations that we can draw our so-called “Lenten practices.” A few examples might help.
Let’s say I’m a complainer—a behavior I’d like to change. I can begin by asking, “What makes me complain so much?” Maybe I’ve become blind to the blessings in my life. I’m taking things and people for granted. If so, my Lenten practice could be to become more aware of all my blessings, to name them, and to thank God for specific ones each day in Lent. Or maybe I complain because I’m just too tired. Then my Lenten practice might be to go to bed 30 minutes earlier each night. Or maybe I complain because I’m out of touch with individuals who have far less than I have. Might I volunteer to do something to help ease another’s pain–rather than complain about my own?
Or maybe I’m very impatient. I’m always in a huff whether I’m driving, working on a project, cooking, or waiting for someone. The underlying motivation could be this: I pride myself on how many things I can get done. Being efficient means a lot to me. My Lenten practice could be to intentionally slow down, that is, to walk slower, talk slower, eat slower, and drive the speed limit. I can remind myself that there are more important things in life than speed and efficiency—like people and relationships! My Lenten practice could also be to make more time for relationships—time to play with a child, tease my spouse, compliment a stranger, thank a former teacher, phone an elderly relative, or treat a friend to lunch.
Or maybe I’m not praying. Why? I don’t have time. It’s boring. I don’t know what to say. I’m afraid of God. I’m mad at God. I don’t believe God is interested in me. Take your pick—then choose a practice such as this: set aside 15 minutes each morning (day or evening) and tell God honestly how I’m feeling and what I’m thinking. Then humbly ask God for what I think I need. Or I can read the scripture for each day and look for one word, line, or phrase that speaks to me. Or I can pray the rosary or one of the psalms each day. Or I can just begin by telling Jesus I’d really like to know him better. And help!
Other behaviors we might want to change: being bossy, self-centered, insensitive, fearful, untruthful, lazy, unjust, wasteful, and gossipy. Our Lenten practice, rather than being merely an act of self-denial, actually becomes an act of love–something I’m doing for God, for others, and even for self!
This understanding of change and renewal can help us get at the root of behaviors that don’t reflect the mind or heart of Jesus (to paraphrase St. Paul). After all, the ultimate goal of our spiritual life is to become more like Jesus, that is, to incarnate Jesus in our particular time and place, with our personality, gifts, responsibilities, and limitations. Lent affords us 40 days to begin that renewal process. Happy renewal!
What behavior would I like to change or modify this Lent? What motivates me to do the behavior I want to change? What practices might move me toward real renewal?
NOTE: I will post a reflection for Valentine’s Day, Thursday, Feb. 14.