Franciscan Wisdom for Lent
This Sunday the Church will celebrate the Third Sunday of Lent. We’re almost halfway to Easter! Maybe by this point you’re already feeling a pang of guilt at having so quickly abandoned your penitential practices and resolutions. The Lord is so patient with us and there is still plenty of time to begin again. Here are some particularly Franciscan ways in which to enter more deeply into this holy season of penance and preparation:
Pray Before the Crucifix
Yes, it sounds so simple, but sometimes we over look the simplest ways of encountering God. On the Cross, Jesus demonstrated the profundity of God’s love for humanity. In what theologians call the Kenosis, Christ emptied Himself completely. St. Paul describes it this way in his letter to the Philippians: “Though he was in the form of God, [Christ] did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2: 6-8). Struggling with patience? Contemplate the patience of the Crucified Christ who bore the pain and the insults of his persecutors. Are you wrestling with pride? Look upon the humility of your Crucified Lord who, although God, “did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.” On the Cross is the answer to every question and the strength in every struggle. This was so true that the Capuchin lay brother, St. Conrad of Parzham, never used a spiritual book for meditation. When asked about this by a fellow friar one day after meditation, St. Conrad responded: “The cross is my only book, a glance at the cross teaches me at all times what I must do.” During this time of Lent, spend time before the Crucifix. See there the love with which God loves you and learn the many lessons that Jesus wishes to teach you.
Go to Confession
The Sacrament of Reconciliation is, for many people, synonymous with the Lenten season. Parishes offer special Penance services during Lent. Some dioceses offer a particular day in which all parishes simultaneously offer the Sacrament of Reconciliation at the same time. But in many ways, Western culture has lost the sense of sin and, therefore, lost the deep, heartfelt need for repentance. St. John Paul II confessed his sins once a week as did St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Were they merely scrupulous? No! They were saints! Because of their deep relationship with God in prayer, they recognized more clearly than we their own imperfections and need for mercy. St. Francis of Assisi had a strong sense of the danger of sin. He once wrote: “Woe to those who die in mortal sin!” Many people are afraid to go to confession. I’ve heard many protestations such as: “I won’t know what to say” or “The priest will judge me” We must have no such fears. The great Capuchin confessor, St. Leopold Mandic, once received a man who had been away from confession for a long time and had many serious sins. Seeing that the man was struggling, St. Leopold said encouragingly: “Here we are two sinners: God have mercy on us!” Do not let this season of preparation pass by without encountering the profound love, mercy and peace that Jesus wishes to give you in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Pray the Stations of the Cross
On Fridays during Lent, most parishes offer the Stations of the Cross, a devotion in which the faithful process through 14 meditations on the sufferings and death of Jesus Christ. The Stations of the Cross originated in pilgrimages to Jerusalem to reproduce the Via Dolorosa. When the Muslims conquered Jerusalem in 1187, access was cut off to the holy route of Jesus’s final journey. Forty years later, Franciscans were permitted to return to the Holy Land. St. Francis of Assisi had a fervent devotion to the Passion of Christ and founded the Custody of the Holy Land to promote devotion to the holy places. Later, during the 15th and 16th centuries, the Franciscans began to build a series of outdoor shrines throughout Europe in order to duplicate their counterparts in the Holy Land. Originally, the number of “stations” varied between seven and thirty. These were usually placed along the approach to a church. In 1686, in answer to a petition, Pope Innocent XI granted the Franciscans the right to erect stations within their churches and their number was fixed at 14. The Stations of the Cross can be a powerful way of entering more concretely into the profound sufferings of Jesus in His journey toward the Cross. Reflections on each station can help a person to understand how Christ endured these torments for the sake of love and how in His sufferings we can find strength to bear our own crosses. If it has been a while, make plans to attend your parish’s Stations of the Cross this Friday or go on your own when the Church is open and make them privately.
Make a Fast
A key aspect of the spiritual life, and one we don’t often talk about, is self-denial. Scripture and the teachings of the Church state that, due to our fallen nature, we have disordered desires. Deep within the heart of every person is a profound hunger for Divine Love, the very love of God. Yet we often seek to quell that hunger with inappropriate things, overeating, abusing alcohol or drugs, watching too much television, etc. A car is meant to run on gasoline and putting sugar in an empty tank is a certain way to ruin the car. Similarly, the soul was made for love and trying to fill the human soul with anything else will always leave us feeling empty and unfulfilled. For this reason, the Church proposes the practice of fasting. Fasting is the intentional denial of food for a specific period of time. That may sound crazy to many people. Why would anyone deny themselves food?! The reality is that fasting is deeply rooted in the history of the Church and the lives of the saints. In the Didache, the earliest known writings of the apostles (even predating some of the New Testament books), Christians are encouraged to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. Jesus Himself fasted for forty days and nights in the desert and commanded that his followers also would fast when He was taken away from them. St. Francis of Assisi was a very penitential man who kept a strict fast for Lent (and at other times). In The Little Flowers of St. Francis is a story about one Lent in particular in which St. Francis passed the entire period on an island in the Lake of Perugia. Francis remained alone on that island throughout Lent until Holy Thursday, praying and sustaining himself on nothing but a single loaf of bread. Fasting has incredible benefits: its strengthens the will for virtue and renews the heartfelt desire for God deep within. Fasting is also said to have positive health benefits. The Church mandates fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and prescribes a minimum fasting of one normal size meal and two smaller meals (that together do not equal the size of the normal meal). If you’ve never really embraced the practice of fasting, give it a real try this Lent. Combine your fast with extra time spent in prayer and you will be amazed at the results.
Turn Off the Technology and Read a Spiritual Book
Statistics on the increased use of technology are staggering. The typical person, by their early 20’s, will have spent more than 30,000 hours on the Internet, social media or playing video games. That’s roughly 3.5 years immersed in the use of technology by age 20! Technology in itself is not good or bad; it all depends on how we use it. But studies have shown that technology can influence brain function and cause increased levels of anxiety. We live in a fast-paced, digital world and the constant use of technology makes it hard for us to slow down and be still. As mentioned above, our use of technology can very easily become a disordered desire, even an addiction. Yet, God is experienced in the stillness and the silence of prayer. If you are someone who spends a lot of time on your smartphone or laptop, consider a media fast for the remainder of Lent. Switch out your tablet for a good spiritual book. We often underestimate the importance and power of spiritual reading. The Italian Capuchin, St. Padre Pio, once advised one of his spiritual children: “Do not consider me too demanding if I ask you once again to set great store by holy books and read them as much as you can. This spiritual reading is as necessary to you as the air you breath.” Those are strong words from a great saint. There are many great spiritual books out there which can help get us back on the right track this Lent. Consider visiting your local Catholic book store and finding some nutritious food for the soul.
Do Not Be Discouraged
Many times we give up after a failed attempt at increased prayer or a broken commitment to deny ourselves something during Lent. The journey toward holiness is a lengthy one and it will be filled with failures and missteps. Jesus Himself fell three times on the way to Golgotha. Yet, He got up and kept going. His example is our model for discipleship. When you fail or fall, do not give in to discouragement. Rather, get up and keep going. St. Padre Pio advised his spiritual children with a similar sentiment when he said: “Do not be discouraged. You think you are doing a good work, but God is doing it within you. When you realize this you will strive even harder to co operate with God’s will and this will take you further on the path with speed. – Let us humble ourselves and confess that if God were not our armor and shield, we would be pierced by all kinds of sins. That is why we must live in God by persevering in our practices, and learn to serve Him at our own expense.”