The other night when a friend (who is also a great priest) was over for dinner, we were discussing the different kinds of Lenten decor (or the appropriate lack thereof), a question arose that nearly knocked me off the couch...
"When did we start associating Lent with being fruitless?"
Before this particular Lent, if you were to ask me to recall some images that come to mind when I hear the word Lent, I would have said the following: a dry desert, sticks in a clay pot, a mouth-watering chocolate cake behind an electric fence, low blood sugar attacks, hair shirts (I'm kidding), and bodily suffering (I've had two babies during Lent). And to top it all off, if I'm honest with myself, usually I bring all these images and good merits with me to East Sunday like quarters to a vending machine. If Easter Sunday doesn't deliver total peace, joy, and a baby who sleeps all night, I am quite disappointed with the Lord.
Someone tell me that I'm not alone on this!
This conversation with our friend (and consequently lots of prayer) allowed me to realize something- this Lent has been completely different than all other Lents ever! No, I'm not that much more awesome than last Easter (though I do have a baby who can sleep all night from time to time), but MERCY has entered the picture in a bigger way than before!
God does not mean for this [picture] to be our HEARTS during Lent, but merely to represent SOME of our practices- but this was what my heart was lookin' like!
THANKS BE TO GOD AND THANK YOU POPE FRANCIS!! This year of Mercy has open wide the doors for God to work and to till my heart into a more fertile kind soil, and if I can identify something that has been the game-changer to this fertile soil (besides having a fifth children between this Lent and last), it would be MERCY!!
I haven't beat myself up when a bite of chocolate enters my mouth (by accident... or... not by accident), no longer have I focused ONLY on going without that which I do not need, and don't get me wrong, bodily penances are MOST DEFINITELY a necessary part of a fruitful Lent, but white-knuckling through Lent isn't going to open our hearts to the Lord. It may lead to resenting Him.
My Lent has looked something like this (emphasis on "something like"): Less alcohol, less sweets (like none during the week... except for the three family birthdays and Sacrament celebrations), less yelling, less movies, smaller portions. It also has included more... praying more on my knees rather than in my comfy bed, sitting more often in silent prayer rather than filling it with books and journaling, which is my normal tendency (this one I was pretty terrible at, but hey, Lent's not over), preparing for consecration to Divine Mercy, working on actually preparing meals for my family rather than winging it all the time, St Alphonsus Ligouri's Stations of the Cross, waking up early to try to both pray and exercise, and consciously attempting to trust more in the Lord.
This last bit I was not exactly specific with the Lord as to how I would go about trusting Him more, and it came in the form of basically giving up my children's health for Lent (up until about 2 days ago, can I get an Thank you, Lord?). So for the first half of Lent, our house had one or all of it's members with tonsillitis, fifth disease, fever, unending coughing, adenoid removal, swollen glands, and several symptoms that accompany low progesterone (ok, maybe that last one was me, but it's a nicer way to say PMS). It was the perfect opportunity to make a conscious effort to trust in God's mercy to bring me through EACH LITTLE MOMENT (day and night). Quite the opportunity, which I can promise you, I did not come up with myself.
Am I making this up? No, I don't think I am... Lent is meant to bring about a blooming of our spiritual life THROUGH stripping away what is less than necessary (though red wine's being superfluous is debatable) and adding extra practices to make our hearts more fertile ground for God to work in us!! But it MUST be laced with an increase of God's LOVE and MERCY... which He will not force on us! This experience has actually INCREASED my desire 1) to actually give prayer the weight it deserves 2) the grace to make prayer go deeper and 3) the penitence and recognition of my smallness to ask God for MORE help in getting me to where He wants me. And if I'm not mistaken (and I'm pretty sure I'm not because many priests have mentioned this), what we change/alter/give up is meant to spill over into the everyday long after we are finally able to shout Alle...lu... ooh wait... not time to say it yet. These practices are meant to become everyday practices to some degree, so if I observe Lenten practices that are next to absurd, I can promise you that I am much more likely to resent them. If, however, the different things that I mentioned earlier can more easily become a part of my everyday life, then Lent was most definitely fruitful- in a sustainable kind of way. I'm shooting for sustainable changes here.
Hosea 2:14 - "I will allure her, I will lead her into the desert, and there I will speak to her heart." (emphasis mine)
Joel 2:13 "...and and .” Return to the , God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love..."
Somewhere over the years, I must have started leaving some of those precious underlined words out... God has already told us that in the desert HE WILL SPEAK TO US and that going without for the sake of going without will NOT help us to learn of the Lord's gracious and merciful Love! I have a lot to learn, but this Lent is the start of something so wonderful and new! I used to approach Lent with a WOMP WOMP kind of attitude, but it seems like God in His mercy has allowed this Lent to be different- AND I'M LOVIN' IT- May lent be a season of FRUITFULNESS for all of us!
Do I mean that for you to drop completely what you may have been doing this Lent? NOPE. I simply think that if you, like me, found/find yourself in a place where Lent is fruitless, there is still time! There is time to reevaluate and ask God to come into this Lent in a different way- a way FILLED with grace and mercy!