The last full week of Lent, before Holy Week begins, has always been a bit of a struggle for me. Usually by this time, I’ve already slipped up on my voluntary Lenten penances once or several times, I’m ready for the Triduum to just be here already, and I’m completely over the color purple. My husband and I jokingly call this spiritual sluggishness or restlessness “the end-of-Lent slog.” It seems like these particular days before Holy Week ramps up are when we are tempted the most to go back to the things we’re fasting from or to just throw in the towel on Lent because we’re “basically done.”
My husband and I pray Evening Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours together, and one of the readings that has resonated with me this Lent comes from St. Paul. In his first letter to the Corinthians, he encourages his readers to imitate well-trained athletes and to “run so as to win.” He continues: “Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one.” When I was a teenager, I viewed Lent as a sprint: choose some really intense or difficult penances, struggle to maintain an unrealistically high level of spiritual rigor, and then after Easter gleefully go right back to doing and eating all the things I had given up while tossing out all the spiritual growth I’d supposedly just undergone. As I matured in my faith, I came to understand that Lent is not meant to be a temporary, intense lifestyle challenge; rather, it is the start of a marathon. It’s a specific time to motivate ourselves to grow deeper in our relationship with God by letting go of the things that keep us from Him and by doing more difficult penances for our sins and vices—preferably by abstaining from them and thus breaking our addictions to or reliance on them.
Like St. Paul says, we ought to treat our spiritual lives the way that athletes treat their sport: they dedicate themselves to it, setting higher and higher goals, training their bodies, denying themselves in order to maintain peak physical performance. And all of this to win a crown of leaves! How much more important, then, are the things we take on during Lent? We are training and preparing our souls for an eternity in Heaven with God, not for gold medals or accolades here on earth. Do we approach Lent as something that we need to win right now, this year? Or as something that trains us and jumpstarts us for the rest of the year—and the rest of our lives? Do we find ourselves fasting from the same things every year because we couldn’t maintain virtuous habits once the Easter bells started to ring? Or have our old Lenten penances and prayers become so incorporated into our daily lives that we can build upon them with each new Lenten season?
Once I realized these things about Lent, all those times I “failed” in my Lenten practices didn’t seem so terrible anymore. I no longer want to “quit” Lent when I accidentally slip up on my penances or when I find myself giving in to temptation. If Lent is meant to jumpstart us on spiritual practices that we continue for months and years afterward, then we have to acknowledge and move past the stumbles and crashes when they come. Our failures to live up to our promises to God are still regrettable, certainly, but when we are in it for the long haul, our stumbles are also much more forgettable. St. Paul shows us that in “forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead” we must continue in our “pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.” We must acknowledge and repent of our broken pasts and our sinfulness, but we also must look with hope toward the future that Christ has made possible for us. If we allow ourselves to dwell too much on our failures, our concupiscence, our weakness as mortal men, then we can lose sight of the ultimate goal for which we strive: to be with Christ in Heaven. As Lent moves into Holy Week and Eastertide, let us strive to be like Paul’s well-disciplined athletes, winning the marathon of life by training our souls for the eternal prize of Jesus Christ.
For more resources to accompany you throughout the Lenten season, please click here.
Question for Reflection: How can you build on your Lenten practices throughout the liturgical year?
I can recall from a very young age pondering what it means to be Catholic. We were supposed to somehow be different from secular society by the way we lived our lives, but how or why was that any different than simply being a good, kind, and moral human being? Can “normal” domestic life be holy? Why is the domestic church—the Christian family—so vitally important to our faith?
Throughout my life, this question has been answered in various ways and degrees. However, nothing has been so powerful as what I have witnessed in the past few months. In the late fall of last year, my mother-in-law underwent unexpected surgery and was unable to attend Mass. During our family’s Thanksgiving visits, I witnessed an incredible moment of our faith: my mother was able to distribute the Sacred Body of our Lord to my mother-in-law. Tears fell from my mother-in-law’s eyes as my husband, father, mother, and I encircled her, reciting prayers together in preparation for the distribution of the Eucharist. I was struck by the immensity of this moment: as I witnessed the woman who gave me life distribute the source of eternal life to the woman who gave my husband life, the depth and vital importance of the domestic church began to come into clearer focus for me.
The Christmas season would bring me another unexpected intersection of family and faith and another reminder of the significance of the domestic church. My father was hospitalized between Christmas and New Year’s; I found myself once again in the midst of a family circle of prayer as this time I witnessed my sister ministering the Sacred Body of our Lord to both my father and mother. My husband, nieces, nephew, brother-in-law, and I encircled my father’s hospital bed. Again, I found myself struck by the immensity of the moment unraveling before me; there is something very profound in witnessing the physical, tangible presence of Christ enter into vulnerable family space. I held these moments in my heart and in my mind, reflecting on them as the days rolled by between the holidays and the beginning of Lent.
This year, our parish announced that they are encouraging families to consecrate themselves to the Holy Family. Ah, the Holy Family, the perfect model of the domestic church! It is within the context of the family that we learn about our faith and see examples of faith lived out. Christ Himself was born into a family; it was a vital part of his plan of salvation.
We are each called to sainthood and each of our paths to sainthood will look a bit different. Lent is a beautiful time to really evaluate how close we are to following that path and what we can do in our lives to stay the course. No matter what path our calling leads us on, all paths lead back to the family—whether that be our own family by blood or our brothers and sisters in the faith.
How do we live out each day as a domestic church and bring that holy reverence to our everyday lives? We are called not only to love one another but to LIVE for one another. I witnessed this profoundly over the holidays when I saw different members of my family live for and serve one another. But there are also opportunities being presented throughout our everyday life to grow in holiness and spiritual maturity—especially now during this Lenten season. Lent is not only a time to deny ourselves of those things that keep us from our path to sainthood but also a time to invite the Holy Spirit to open our eyes and hearts to opportunities of everyday holiness and saintly domesticity. Christ wants to be a living presence in our homes and in our families, but we have to open the door for Him and invite Him in. I saw the effects of Christ’s presence in my family in those moments when He was brought physically to my parents and mother-in-law. Christ brings unity, service, strength, love. Just as in our physical lives we can manage the stresses and craziness of ever day life better when we fuel our body with proper nutrition and exercise, so too are we called to fuel our spirits and our family bonds with the Bread of the angels and on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.
What spiritual exercises can we work through together as a family this Lenten season? How can we work to call one another to a life of saintly domesticity?
For more resources to accompany you throughout your Lenten journey, please click here.
To learn more about Marriage and Family, please click here.
In this world of artificial connection, can we still discover and grasp an authentic connection within ourselves to our Triune God? Many of us are technologically connected throughout the day and into the evening, whether it be through social media, texting, e-mails, the Internet, or general screen time. In a normal day-to-day setting, take a moment to reflect on how often you have face-to-face time to truly speak with and connect with your family, peers, friends, or co-workers. In those moments, are you able to reach beyond a superficial level of connection?
Oftentimes amidst the busyness of our lives, schedules, commutes, and responsibilities, we find it difficult to truly maintain a connected relationship with others that goes beyond our phone, tablet, or computer screen. If maintaining this human connection has become difficult, how much more difficult is it for us to find those moments of quiet, internal spiritual connection to God? Our society and technology have fooled us into believing that all of this quick and easy access has made it easier than ever to keep in touch with those that mean the most to us. And yet oftentimes it has instead succeeded in building walls of electronic screens not only between us and others but, more importantly, between us and God.
There are many things that resonate between our physical, or exterior, and our spiritual, or interior, lives. What is the equivalent “screen time” in our spiritual lives? Where are we holding onto surface-level connections instead of digging deeper into our relationship with God and growing in our spiritual life? Are we holding onto a barrier that is holding us back from maturing in our spiritual development? Just as we grow, develop, and mature in our physical lives, we are called to do so in our spiritual lives as well.
Today, we celebrate and commemorate the life of Saint Teresa of Jesus, also known as Saint Teresa of Avila. Saint Teresa was a spiritual writer and mystic. She is one of four females to be named a Doctor of the Church, meaning that her spiritual writings have been given special authority. Her teachings, writings, and life can point us in the direction of growing in our interior life and thus growing in our faith and connection to God.
In Saint Teresa’s spiritual writing The Interior Castle, she likens the stages of growth and development of our interior life to seven mansions within a castle. Saint Teresa describes the dwelling of God within us as residing in the seventh mansion of our castle. Through the growth and development of our spiritual life, our soul is to journey through the mansions to find its rest within the seventh, the kingdom of God.
The first step in entering the castle is prayer. Saint Teresa teaches that, “Souls without prayer are like people whose bodies and limbs are paralyzed.” Let’s take a moment to reflect on our prayer life. Are there any “electronic screens” standing in the way of deepening our relationship and our conversations with our Creator? Are we connecting to God in our prayer life as if we are updating our Facebook status or posting our latest photo to Instagram? Or are we really striving to power down the screens of distraction in our life to speak with God AND listen to Him?
Let us turn to the life of Saint Teresa as an example and inspiration for our desire to develop the maturity of our soul. The next time you enter into prayer, “Go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret.” (Matthew 6:6) If we look at these words of Scripture through the lens of Saint Teresa’s teachings, we must pass the walls of our castle, our body, in order to enter our inner room. Allow yourself a few moments to quiet and calm the body in order to turn your focus to God. Take time to power down the screen. Close your eyes and breathe deeply. The Divine Physician has created our body in such a way that by slowing and deepening our breath rate, our heart rate and blood pressure decreases, our muscles relax, and the racing thoughts of our mind slow so that we can focus on one Triune thing, our God. In this state of quiet and calm, invite the Holy Spirit into this moment and seek a true, contemplative connection in prayer with your Creator.
I would like to close with a prayer often attributed to Saint Teresa of Avila: “May today there be peace within. May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be. May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith. May you use those gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that has been given to you. May you be content knowing you are a child of God. Let this presence settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love. It is there for each and every one of us.”
Saint Teresa of Avila, pray for us!
Leadership is essential for a healthy and holy Church. From St. Peter to Pope Francis where would our Church stand today without the great and gifted leaders through the centuries?
Leadership in the Church, including local parishes, is not immune from the kinds of temptations leaders face in any institution. Based on my experience, I’d like to consider three temptations many leaders face framed by J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic Lord of the Rings series. It is my hope that understanding and being aware of these temptations will lead to a stronger, more unified Church grounded in the love of Christ.
The Pursuit of Power
“The road must be trod, but it will be very hard. And neither strength nor wisdom will carry us far upon it. This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet it is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: Small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.” (The Fellowship of the Ring)
Tolkien’s story relies on some rather homely and “weak” characters—hobbits—to carry out a great task: destroying the magic ring to save Middle Earth. We normally identify leaders by their exceptional strengths and talents. We use popular tools like strength and personality finder tests to help us identify our unique gifts. Using our gifts and talents to build up the Body of Christ is prudent and life-giving, but we should not too quickly assume God only wants to use our human strengths to bless or lead his Church. In fact, God often builds up the Church by using our weaknesses. He entrusted the building of His Church, afterall, not to the rabbis and scholars of his time, but to simple men, fishermen. As St. Paul frequently preached, cross-shaped leaders learn to live first out of their weakness and dependency on the power of the crucified Lord:
“Consider your own calling, brothers. Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong… I came to you in weakness… so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.” (1 Cor 1:26-27; 2:3,5).
Knowing our weaknesses helps us as leaders to not fall into the temptation of the pursuit of power. Christ is glorified in our human weakness and can transform it for the building up of His kingdom.
The Allure of Ambition
“You are so wise and powerful, will you not take the ring?”
“No!” cried Gandalf, springing to his feet. “With that power I should have power too great and too terrible.” (The Fellowship of the Ring)
The allure of the ring is the promise of control, but the great wizard Gandalf understands the power of the ring inevitably ends up controlling the wearer. True leaders develop habits of cooperation and collaboration in ministry and are quick to deflect praise and thanks onto others. Because leaders are in a position to influence outcomes and events, however, some can be tempted to an unhealthy ambition.
Sometimes, it can be tempting to view parish ministry as a stepping-stone to a bigger, better career in the church or name recognition. Unhealthy ambition can also feed a spirit of competition and criticism between churches that undermines our call to communion.
One of my go-to prayers to combat this attitude is called the Litany of Humility. It is a good practice to periodically check our focus and drive. Does our work stem from a love of Christ and His Church? Are we seeking God’s greater glory or our own?
“All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.”
(The Fellowship of the Ring)
I had a friend who out of college was given the responsibility of the youth ministry program at his home church. Unfortunately, early on he made a financial mistake that ruined a popular trip and drew harsh criticism from parents and staff alike. Unable to cope with such treatment, he resigned from ministry shortly after.
Rather than seeing failure or mistakes as reasons to give up, these can be seen as important opportunities for growth and maturation. A young church is surely a sign of a healthy and growing church, but that doesn’t make it a mature church. While the freedom to take risks and make mistakes is an indispensable part of learning, leaders should surround themselves with team members who are varied and diverse in their ministry experience.
For those who are relatively new to working for the Church, I suggest finding a faithful mentor or spiritual director with whom you can share struggles and receive encouragement. As Tolkien notes above, the Church needs wise, mature men and women to walk alongside its young, teaching patience and perseverance in order to grow deep roots.
Thanks to many gifted and faithful leaders, our Catholic Church indeed has deep, strong roots. By knowing and understanding a few temptations leaders can face, we can help our Church become more faithful and stronger. Pray for our church leaders, that God may give them the grace to be wise, humble, gracious, and joyful examples of the call to be more obedient followers of Jesus.