If you were to take that approach to Lent this year, you might ask: "What would bring me more alive?"
Keep your eye on the sun in this season. It will give you the primary cue as to what this period we call Lent is all about. In our northern hemisphere, Lent coincides with the turning of the earth towards the sun, the springing forth of life from the apparent death of winter's frigid grasp.
The very word "Lent" comes from the Anglo-saxon "lencthen," originally referring to the lengthening of the light. From this original meaning, confirmed in the movement from winter's darkness to spring's increasing vitality, we are invited to move out of our own personal lethargy to vitality, from ashes to the paschal feast. Lent, in short, is about coming to life in new ways. It is about growth.
Its spirit is better captured by the pouring of water at Easter baptisms than by the burning of palms on Ash Wednesday. The history of Christian worship reminds us that Lent exists as a time to prepare candidates for baptism and to invite all the baptized to renew their baptismal consecration at Easter. Once again, the emphasis is on new life.
If you were to take that approach to Lent this year, you might ask: "What would bring me more alive?" The practices of physical and spiritual disciplines you choose would be in light of Jesus' words, "I came that you might have life and have it to the full!" (John 10:10). Yes, you might settle on a practice or two that has some "bite" in it, but it would be undertaken in the spirit of pruning a rose bush, of cutting back the branches that have grown too wild, in order to cultivate more blossoms that give glory to God.
If you approached your life in terms of a holistic spirituality, looking at your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being to see where things have fallen out of balance, have grown wild, and need some pruning or fertilizer or watering, you might ask yourself some questions like these:
How is the balance between my active and contemplative life? Do I spend much more time "conjugating" the verbs doing, wanting, having than the verb being? What forms of prayer might help me restore some contemplative space to my living to allow my soul to breathe?
What is the balance between mind and body in my day? If the scale tips heavily towards major engagement of the mind but minor involvement for the body, what kind of physical exercise might I enjoy that would have the benefit of renewing my energy, enabling me to sleep better, and bring a more relaxed presence to those with whom I live and work?
Is there rough equilibrium between time invested in taking care of myself and time dedicated to taking care of others? If I cannot identify a clear service dimension somewhere in the deployment of my time and energy, what opportunities are there in my locale to assist the homeless, the hungry, the sick or the aged?
Is my relational life blossoming, or dying on the vine? Maybe laying in an evening a week to spend with spouse or friends would be like watering dry soil and bring alive your affectivity with laughter and tears.
What's the balance between passive watching (as in television) and active reading (as in a good book that nourishes the soul)? Could Lenten fasting take the form of fewer sitcoms watched but more chapters read?
And what's the ratio between the time my functional activities get and the time made available to nurture my creative energies? Maybe a good Lenten resolution would be to get out at least once a week to an art gallery or a museum, or to an inspiring play or movie.
Whatever you settle on in this season of a springtime for the spirit, keep your eye on the sun and imitate the earth in turning more fully towards the light. Do what will bring you and others more fully to life. There could be no better preparation for the Easter feast of water and light, no better offering to make at the altar, than a heart and spirit renewed and grateful to God for the gift of life both human and divine.
Father Thomas Ryan, CSP, directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Boston.
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