Our Sunday Visitor
With the arrival of Lent, we enter into a natural time of reflection. For 40 days, Jesus entered the desert, fasting and praying before beginning his public ministry. For 40 days, we model his behavior. We observe a time of introspection and of self-emptying, of prayer and of sacrifice. We push our own desires aside to make room for God’s will.
This Lent is starting differently. As we begin our second Lent with COVID, we are still enduring, as many people have termed it, a “long Lent” that began last Ash Wednesday and, thanks to the pandemic, just kept going.
For nearly a year, we have been living a life of significant sacrifice. For the good of our neighbor, we have abstained from social events and strapped on masks for any and every outing. We have skipped vacations and have altered routines. And we have endured the kind of mental, emotional and spiritual fatigue that comes with months of uncertainty and anxiety.
For these reasons, it is somewhat natural to be at a loss for how to engage in Lent this year. As one influential Catholic voice on Twitter asked recently: “How does one prepare for a new Lent when last year’s Lent doesn’t seem to have ended yet?”
The church’s tradition teaches us that through the practice of fasting, prayer and almsgiving, we empty ourselves and, in turn, make room for God. Over the past year, we have certainly emptied ourselves. The question remains: Have we filled up the emptiness with God?
To answer that question, it may be helpful to begin with a look back. In the spirit of Ignatian spirituality and the popular daily examen, we can and should take time in prayer to reflect on the past year as a whole. Review the challenges brought by each passing month. How was life different from a typical year? Where did we struggle? What are we grateful for? How was God at work? What opportunities for grace did we seize? What might we have missed? A time of crisis sometimes can lead to negative changes in behavior. Did we adopt any bad habits in the past 12 months?
Emotionally, the pandemic has taken a toll on each one of us in ways we might not even realize. How did we respond to the challenges we faced throughout the year? Was our attitude and behavior instructed by virtue? Do we need to ask anyone for forgiveness? Is there a change we need to make?
As we pray, are there certain events from the year upon which God is drawing us to reflect in a particular way? What can we learn from those experiences? How can we grow spiritually from them? What might we do differently if presented with similar situations in the future?
Then, we should look ahead to what’s to come. Yes, it’s been a long year and another season of Lent is just getting started. But don’t forget that Easter is the end game. Even if you’re feeling burdened and worn out spiritually, physically and emotionally, new life is always possible in Christ. And while we shouldn’t give ourselves a “pass” for Lent, this exceptional time of pandemic certainly allows us to approach it through a different lens.
Maybe this isn’t the year for extreme sacrifice and penance but rather an opportunity for deeper prayer or spiritual reading. Maybe this is the time to focus on growth in a particular virtue or to grow in relationship with a particular saint. Maybe we focus on breaking any bad habits we acquired over the past year. Or maybe it’s a time to focus more significantly on others, as the Archdiocese of San Francisco is doing with its inspiring “Year for the Homeless.”
Finally, in this year of St. Joseph, we can and should take advantage of this Lent to grow closer to the foster-father of Jesus. As a man utterly obedient to and reliant on God during his own time of great challenge, St. Joseph has much to teach us. Through his silent witness, we can learn simply to be quiet and listen to and follow the will of God in our lives — especially during these anxious times. And as we proceed through the second Lent of this “long Lent,” may we remain ever heartened that, at long last, Easter will come again.