Showing posts with label Fasting. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Fasting. Show all posts

Friday, November 29, 2019

Otherwordly Peace and Vibrant Faith Characterize Medjugorje

I recently led a pilgrimage to Medjugorje with 30 participants. In Medjugorje, the Virgin Mary is known as the Kraljica Mira - or the Queen of Peace. "Peace" is the word I would most use to characterize Medjugorje. However, the word falls short, because human language cannot express the deep, all-pervading sense of peace that reigns in that town.

The life of Medjugorje revolves entirely around Catholic sacraments and devotions. Daily Mass is held in multiple languages, including English, Polish, Italian, French, and German. At the evening international Mass, simultaneous translation is provided in various languages via radio. The multitudes of pilgrim groups also say Mass in their own languages. The two main venues for the liturgies are St. James Church in the center of town and the open air chapel behind the church. The church building is not adequate to hold the crush of people seeking to participate, so most Masses are packed beyond capacity, with not even standing room left. The open air seating can hold about 5,000 people, and the seats are often filled.

5,000 people for just one of the many daily Masses... 5,000 people praying the Rosary together on a weeknight... 5,000 people worshipping together in a guided Holy Hour for Adoration... 5,000 pilgrims venerating the Holy Cross in unison on a Friday... Multitudes of priests sit for hours to hear the confessions for pilgrims in various languages. In fact, Medjugorje is know as the Confession capital of the world. What is more, many of the pilgrims here are very young, in contrast to other pilgrimages sites I have visited, like Lourdes and Fatima, where the pilgrims tend to be much older.

At the edge of town stands what the locals call Apparition Hill. According to the visionaries, it was on this hill that the Blessed Virgin Mary started appearing in 1981. Today, a statue of the Queen of Peace, erected by the Korean Catholic community, marks the spot where the first seven apparitions are said to have occurred. The Vatican Commission tasked with examining the Medjugorje phenomenon has recently recommended that the Church approve the first seven apparitions as authentic, while continuing to study the claims of the ongoing apparitions.

Pilgrims ascend Apparition Hill day and night, in groups or alone, to pray. The hill is covered with jagged rocks and prickly bushes, but no path has been made, except by the feet of the 40 million or so pilgrims who have climbed to the spot where the statue of the Queen of Peace stands today. The locals have erected panels depicting the mysteries of the Rosary to aid the pilgrims in their prayers. Some lights have also been added to help pilgrims with their nighttime prayer walks. Day and night, the Rosary, along with many other prayers, is being said on this hill - and elsewhere too in Medjugorje. In fact, the only challenge in praying the Rosary in public in this town is that your prayer is likely to get mixed up with the prayers of two or three other groups who might also be praying out loud near you.

Multitudes of pilgrims also ascend Cross Mountain, where, on a much higher spot, stands a concrete cross that the locals built back in the 1930's. Today, the cross is illuminated at night, and it is the most prominent landmark in the area. As many have remarked, the arrangement of the cross versus the statue on Apparition Hill is very much consistent with Marian theology. Mary is prominent, but she is not the most prominent - she points to the Holy Cross, which is the source of our salvation.

As on Apparition Hill, no path has been made on Cross Mountain, except by the feet of the pilgrims. Multitudes climb the steep mountain, ascending up the harsh rocks amid the prickly bushes. Many do so barefoot as an extra penance. Panels depicting the Stations of the Cross have been placed along the way to aid the pilgrims in their prayer. Thousands upon thousands pray the Stations as they make their way up toward the great cross above.

We do not know what the ultimate decision of the Catholic Church will be with regard to Medjugorje. We certainly cannot expect the Church to give full approval to the phenomenon while there are still claims of ongoing visions by the visionaries. Three of the six claim to see the Virgin Mary daily. The other three claim to see her on some specific dates designated by her. If the Church were to issue a fully positive ruling on Medjugorje, she could only do so after the claims of the visions have stopped and everything can be investigated as a historical event, rather than as an ongoing phenomenon. However, I think it is significant that after 38 years, the Vatican has not issued a negative ruling regarding the site. By contrast, Rome has not hesitated to condemn some other claims of ongoing apparitions in other parts of the world.

Recently, the Vatican has also authorized official parish and diocesan pilgrimages to the site. An annual youth festival is held every year at the end of July in Medjugorje, attracting about 70,000 youths from around the world. This past summer, senior Vatican officials attended the festival and participated in the prayers. Under the guidance of Archbishop Henryk Hoser, who serves as the Apostolic Visitor to Medjugorje, the Vatican is also making plans to expand the religious infrastructure of the town to accommodate pilgrims better. Medjugorje badly needs a covered church space that can accommodate well over 5,000 people at a time.

Whatever, the final decision of the Church will be with regard to the claims of apparitions in Medjugorje, one thing seems clear. The Catholic faith is truly alive here. Millions have had their hearts set on fire for Christ through the experience of Medjugorje. Multitudes have been converted to the Catholic faith here - including my wife, Julie. Many Catholics have felt their first call to religious life or the priesthood in Medjugorje. A number of well-documented physical healings have also taken place.

According to the visionaries of Medjugorje, the Virgin Mary has asked us to commit to five spiritual practices. These are usually called the Five Stones, after the five stones that David had in order to fight Goliath. The Five Stones are: 1) Prayer: Pray from the heart, especially the daily recitation of the Rosary. 2) Eucharist: Attend Mass frequently, preferably daily. Spend time with our Lord in Adoration as often as possible. 3) Fasting: Fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, preferably on bread and water only. 4) Confession: Go to Confession once a month. 5) The Holy Bible: Read the Scriptures daily.

Regardless of the authenticity of the apparitions of Medjugorje, the Five Stones constitute sound advice. These practices are at the very heart of Catholic spiritual life. Having spent a week in Medjugorje, I feel a renewed desire to commit to these practices, and I will encourage my fellow pilgrims to do the same.

Mary, Queen of Peace, pray for us!

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

12 Ways to Make Lent a Life-changing Experience

As Catholics, one of the most counter-cultural things we can do is to observe the season of Lent. In our hyper-materialistic, instant grat culture, the idea of 40 days of deliberate self-denial is sure to be seen as crazy. But Lent is a profound opportunity for positive transformation.

The focus of Lent is fourfold:
- Preparing for the liturgical celebration of the death and resurrection of Christ, especially through the Triduum liturgies of Holy Week.
- Atoning for our sins through penitential practices.
- Becoming spiritually purified so that we can be more fully opened to the presence of Christ in our daily lives.
- Preparing ourselves and the world for the Second Coming of Christ.

In this article, I will explore 12 disciplines that can help us to set out on a path of life-giving transformation during the Lenten season. The first three of these, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, are especially encouraged by the Church during this penitential season.

1) Prayer: Lent is a great time to get into the habit of more regular prayer. If we establish a custom of prayer over the 40 days of Lent, we have a good chance of continuing beyond the season. Below are some suggestions for making Lent more prayerful:
- If you don’t already pray the Rosary, commit to praying one full Rosary every day during Lent. If that does not seem possible, then at first commit to saying at least one decade of the Rosary per day.
- Pray the Seven Sorrows Rosary, a special prayer focused on reflecting on Our Lady's suffering. The Blessed Virgin Mary has an especially significant role in the theology of Lent. During Lent, the Church focuses on the suffering of Christ. Mary, by virtue of being the Mother of God, is more closely united to Christ than anyone else. Therefore, she participated in the suffering of her son in a special way, experiencing more suffering than any other created being, other than the human nature of Christ. Thus, Mary, who is the Mother of the Church and the Mother of All Christians, knows our pain when we face the vicissitudes of life, and she is more than ready to help us when we call upon her. (Please see my guide to the Seven Sorrows Rosary for further details on this devotion.)
- Follow the Mass readings of each day of the Lent season. You can find various reflections on the daily readings, such as those of Bishop Barron.
- You might also follow another program of Scripture readings designed for Lent. You can find various sets online, often with commentary.
- Read more Scripture in some other way, for example, by reading one chapter from the Gospels each day.
- Commit to praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet each day during Lent.
- Pray the Stations of the Cross daily or at least on the Fridays of Lent.

2) Fasting: Fasting is an ancient discipline of great spiritual power. Fasting is especially helpful in four ways:

I.) Fasting builds self-control. Food and drink are basic to our survival as human beings, and we have all come to rely on certain types of food and drink for our sense of comfort. We all know how easily the desires of the body can weigh us down and derail us from our goals. In order to be able to live a spiritually, psychologically, and physically healthy life, we have to be able to have to control over our physical desires. By denying ourselves something that plays such a significant role in our day-to-day sense of well-being, we are able to gain much greater control over our bodies.

II.) Fasting helps us make room for God. When we seek succor, comfort, or stress-relief, we very often turn to food and drink. When we remove these go-to creature comforts, we have to confront a sense of emptiness within us. Experiencing that sense of emptiness is a great opportunity to turn to God and invite him into our hearts.

III.) Fasting is a powerful way of atoning for our sins.

IV.) Fasting is a powerful weapon in spiritual warfare. The closer we get to God, the more our spiritual enemies will seek to attack and derail us. Fasting helps to break the power of evil spirits over us and over those we are praying for. In fact, exorcists often fast when they are engaged in exorcisms. In Mark 9:29, Jesus tells us that some demons can only be driven out through "prayer and fasting." (Unfortunately, recently biblical editors have been leaving out the word "fasting" from the passage, due to some manuscript differences, but the significance of the words of Jesus remains.)

So how should we fast? In bye-gone times, our Catholic ancestors observed a much stricter regimen of fasting and abstinence than what the Church mandates today. At one point, many Catholics maintained an essentially vegan diet during the season. Today's rules are much softer. Catholics 14 and older are required to abstain from meat and poultry (but not all animal products) on the Fridays of Lent and Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Catholics between the ages of 18 and 60 are required to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Fasting here is defined as having one full meal, plus two smaller meals that do not add up to one full meal. Snacking between meals is not allowed, but liquids such as coffee, milk, tea, or juice, are.

Today's fasting regulations still have us eating better than much of the rest of the world on a good day. In fact, it's hard to think of eating three meals a day, however, small those might be, with no limit on liquids, as fasting. On the other hand, if we are used to stress eating or just munching throughout the day, even the prescribed fast can be a real trial.

To foster the discipline of fasting during Lent, I would recommend the following. To begin, be sure to observe the rules of fasting and abstinence required by the Church. However, these rules are a minimum. Individual Catholics are welcome to go beyond these requirements, and I would recommend that you do so, by undertaking one or more of these suggestions:

- On the Wednesdays and Fridays of Lent, fast on bread and water only. If two days are two daunting, fast on every Friday during the season. If one full day does not seem possible, fast for portions of one or more days.
- Commit to having only three meals a day, with no snacking in between on more days than just Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. On these additional days, you could eat three full meals but would limit yourself by not snacking between meals.
- Give up a food or drink you especially love, from Ash Wednesday until after you attend Easter Mass.

Some people suggest that instead of fasting from food, you could fast from forms of entertainment, like music or movies or social media. While giving up things other than food and drink in order to foster a sense of discipline can also be highly beneficial, still at the heart of fasting is depriving ourselves of physical sustenance. No other deprivation will have the same transformative effect and spiritual power. Catholic tradition is very clear. If we want to make significant spiritual progress, we have to engage in some form of regular physical fasting.

We should note, however, that the fasting and abstinence rules make exceptions for some categories of people, for example pregnant mothers, workers who have to eat regularly to be able to fulfill their duties, or individuals with medical conditions that necessitate a certain diet. However, even in some of these situations, some degree of physical self-denial might be possible. For example, we might select types of food and drink that we like less than what we would normally have, or we might not season our food in the way that we would normally enjoy.

But in any case, use prudence. The Church does not expect us to harm ourselves through our discipline. Do not do anything that would jeopardize your well-being or that of others. If your physical condition makes it truly impossible to fast, you will achieve the same spiritual growth by enduring your physical limitations with a good grace.

Also, if you are new to fasting, start small, with doable goals. One danger is to start with sweeping plans, which can then lead to failure and giving up. Instead, start small. Once you have reached that goal, you can always add to it. Above all, make sure that your fasting doesn't turn you into a terrible person to be around. If your discipline is causing you to violate the most basic principles of charity, then you are doing things wrong.

3) Almsgiving: During the season of Lent, the Church encourages us to focus on almsgiving more than during the rest of the year. To do so, we should start by examining how we use our resources. Do we waste a lot of money on pointless things? If we find ourselves engaging in excess spending, could we not cut back a little in order to share some of those resources with others in need?

Lent is also a great time to examine our possessions. Do we have a lot of accumulated stuff that we don't use but that others might find valuable? During Lent, try to set aside one unused item in good condition every day or every other day or at least once a week to give away to others who might need them.

4) Repentance and Spiritual Cleansing: As we get closer to God, our spiritual enemies will work extra hard to try to derail our progress. They especially want to draw us away from moments in which we can experience the grace of God in a powerful way. We can expect intensified spiritual attacks during Lent. Therefore, it is especially important to use the time of Lent to turn away from sin and to seek the healing power of Christ to cleanse us from negative spiritual influences. I suggest the following spiritual practices:
- Examination of Conscience: Reflect daily on ways in which you have fallen away from Christ, and pray for the grace of complete repentance.
- Confession: Catholics are bound to go to Confession at least once a year during Lent, if conscious of a mortal sin. However, it is very beneficial to go to Confession much more often than that. In any case, go to Confession at least once during the season of Lent.
- Say spiritual binding prayers to cast our evil spirits that are attacking you and your family. For example, say aloud daily: “I repent of (name sin), and I close all doors that I may have opened through this sin. In the Holy Name of Jesus, I bind, rebuke, and cast out all demons that are attacking me and my family. I invite in the Holy Spirit into my family, into our hearts, our homes, and our lives. I invoke the protection of our Holy Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the holy angels, especially our guardian angels, and all the saints, especially the martyrs who shed their blood for the Lord.”

5) Giving Something Up: Many people give something up for Lent. The sentence "What are you giving up for Lent this year?" is a frequent conversation started among Catholics. If this Lenten sacrifice is to be meaningful, it should take on one of two forms:

I.) You should give up something that plays a significant role in your day-to-day life, in order to develop a great sense of control and discipline or to offer the sacrifice as a form of atonement for sin.

II.) You should give up something that constitutes a bad habit, which you are hoping not to go back to after Lent. In fact, Lent is a season during which we have a structured way to uproot bad habits. If we can refrain from a negative habit for six and a half weeks, we have a good chance of not falling back into it.

6) Take on a Good Habit: As the saying goes, nature abhors a vacuum. If you give up a bad habit, something else will take its place in your life. Make sure that a good habit replaces the bad one. As you decide to uproot a bad habit, be intentional about fostering a good habit in its place.

7) Draw Closer to the Sacraments: The Seven Sacraments are at the heart of the Catholic life. The culmination of the Lenten preparations is the Triduum, the holiest time of the liturgical year. The Triduum, literally meaning three days, goes from the evening of Holy Thursday through the evening of Easter Sunday. On Holy Thursday, we commemorate the Last Supper, in the course of which Christ instituted the Eucharist. On Good Friday, we reflect on the crucifixion of Christ, through which he offered the sacrifice that reconciled humanity with God. As we pray together on Good Friday, we also remember that every Mass is a mystical participation in the sacrifice offered by Christ on the Cross. The next day, on Holy Saturday, the Easter Vigil begins our celebration of the resurrection. At the Easter Vigil, we also celebrate the full initiation of the elect through baptism, Confirmation, and First Holy Communion. Validly baptized converts from other Christian denominations are also given Confirmation and the Eucharist at this Mass.

Given the sacramental focus of the season, use Lent to draw closer to each of the sacraments either through your participation or through your prayers. I would recommend the following:

- Make a commitment to participating in the Triduum liturgies on Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.
- Pray for all those who will be initiated into the full communion of the Church at the Easter Vigil.
- Make a commitment to attending Mass more often than just on Sunday during Lent.
- On days when you cannot attend Mass, unite yourself spiritually with the Eucharist.
- Go to Adoration at least once a week during Lent.

- As mentioned above, go to Confession at least once during the season of Lent.

- During Lent, reflect on your baptism and Confirmation. Reflect on the following questions: “How would my life be different if I had not been baptized and Confirmed? What blessings have I received through my baptism and Confirmation? How can I share those blessings with others?”

- Pray for a priest by name (or several priests) during the season of Lent, as well as for vocations to the priesthood. Pray for all of our ordained ministers and the healing of the Church during these times of crisis.

- Pray for all those who are ill in mind or body, especially those who do not have access to the Anointing of the Sick for whatever reason. Pray in a special way for those who are struggling with loss or grief during this time.

- If you are married, focus on ways that you can enrich your marriage during Lent. Here some suggestions:

I.) Pray together every night. It is very important for married couples to spend at least a few minutes in prayer together every day. If you are not already praying together daily, make this a part of your Lenten discipline.

II.) During your prayer time, name one thing each day that acknowledges some sort of sacrifice that the other person has made for you over the years. You can also alternate, by having one of you name a sacrifice on odd days, and the other on even days.

III.) Consecrate your marriage to our Blessed Mother every Saturday during Lent (Saturdays being days specially set aside for our Holy Mother). As mentioned above, the Blessed Virgin Mary has an especially significant role in Lent. Our Lady has experienced more suffering than any other created being, other than the human nature of Christ. Being our Mother, she is always ready to help us when we face anguish, sorrow, or challenges in life.

IV.) Say a blessing over each other every day during Lent, preferably in person, but if that is not possible, from a distance. Pray to each other's guardian angel for blessings.

V.) If you have kids, pray a blessing over your children every day during Lent, preferably while they are present, but you can do so in their absence too. Consecrate your children to the protection of our Holy Mother every Saturday during Lent. Pray to the guardian angels of your children to help them be fully open to the love of God in their lives.

Below are some sample prayers you can use:

Prayer of Consecration to Our Lady for Couples

Most Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God,
Queen of Angels, Queen of Peace,
Queen of Martyrs and of All the Saints,
Today we consecrate our marriage to you.
Guide us, guard us, help us, and protect us.
Keep us safe from all attacks of the enemy,
All evil spirits seeking to destroy us.

Dear Mother,
Guide all our thoughts, words, and actions,
So that in all things we may live out God's will in our lives,
And that at all times we may draw closer to your Divine Son,
Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Help us help each other grow in holiness, advancing each day
On the way of salvation and sanctification
So that we may join you and all the holy angels and saints
In giving glory, honor, and praise to our God
With our whole being, with all that we are.

Prayer of Consecrating Our Children to Our Lady
(Adapt as needed)

Most Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God,
Queen of Angels, Queen of Peace,
Queen of Martyrs and of All the Saints,
Today I consecrate my children to you.
Guide them, guard them, help them, and protect them.
Keep them safe from all attacks of the enemy,
All evil spirits seeking to destroy them.

Dear Mother,
Guide all their thoughts, words, and actions,
So that in all things they may live out God's will in their lives,
And that at all times they may draw closer to your Divine Son,
Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Help me help them grow in holiness, advancing each day
On the way of salvation and sanctification
So that they may join you and all the holy angels and saints
In giving glory, honor, and praise to our God
With their whole being, with all that they are.

Prayer of Blessing (Female Version)

Lord Jesus Christ, glorious King of Kings,
I pray that you bless [name] my [wife or daughter].
Send your Holy Spirit upon her, and anoint her.
Cleanse her spiritually,
Keep her safe from all evil, all attacks of the enemy.
Heal her and keep her whole in body, mind, and spirit,
Help her love you with her whole heart, soul, strength, and mind.
Let her experience your infinite love for her,
Let her always say yes to the promptings of your Holy Spirit,
And let her be a shining beacon of your love in the world.

I pray also for the protection of our Holy Mother,
The Blessed Virgin Mary over [name],
And of all the holy angels, martyrs, and saints.
I ask all the holy souls in Purgatory to pray for her.

I also ask you, holy guardian angel of [name]
To watch over her, help her, guide her, and protect her,
And help to lead her to full union with our Lord Jesus Christ.

Prayer of Blessing (Male Version)

Lord Jesus Christ, glorious King of Kings,
I pray that you bless [name] my [husband or son].
Send your Holy Spirit upon him, and anoint him.
Cleanse him spiritually,
Keep him safe from all evil, all attacks of the enemy.
Heal him and keep him whole in body, mind, and spirit,
Help him love you with his whole heart, soul, strength, and mind.
Let him experience your infinite love for him,
Let him always say yes to the promptings of your Holy Spirit,
And let him be a shining beacon of your love in the world.

I pray also for the protection of our Holy Mother,
The Blessed Virgin Mary over [name],
And of all the holy angels, martyrs, and saints.
I ask all the holy souls in Purgatory to pray for him.

I also ask you, holy guardian angel of [name]
To watch over him, help him, guide him, and protect him,
And help to lead him to full union with our Lord Jesus Christ.

8) Simplifying Your Life: Lent is a great time to reflect on how you spend your time. Do you feel overwhelmed by everything you have to get done? Do you feel like you are always rushing from one thing to another? Write down the many things that occupy your time. Examine the list and see if you can't eliminate at least some of them. Use the time and energy you free up to focus on Christ more fully.

9) Offer up Your Suffering: During Lent, the Church focusses on the Passion of Christ. Not only did Christ accept the Cross for our sake, but he also told us to take up our cross and follow him. If we want to be Christ's disciples, we have to accept suffering. If we want to be able to grow, to transcend our selfishness and to be able to love God with our whole being, as well as to love all of his children with his love, then we have to embrace our cross in life. As I like to say, the gate of Heaven is in the shape of the cross.

Of course, there is much suffering that we can overcome or prevent through simple measures, such as a headache easily cured with some painkillers. In these cases, we should not hesitate to try to make the suffering cease or to try to forestall it. In other cases, suffering is caused by injustices, which we should challenged. But in every person's life, there will be some form of profound suffering that is inevitable. Such suffering we should accept with a good grace and see in it a potential for positive transformation and growth.

What is more, an important principle of Catholic spirituality is that we can take the spiritual value of suffering accepted with good grace, and we can offer it up for another person, who will receive graces through our gift of the spiritual fruit of our suffering. In offering our suffering for the benefit of others, we are imitating Christ himself, who offered the spiritual fruits of the ultimate sacrifice, his death upon the Cross, for the salvation of humanity. In fact, we might say, that offering up our suffering for others is the most Christ-like thing we can do.

10) Remember Our Mortality: Lent is a good opportunity to reflect on the temporal nature of our sojourn here on earth. We are all going to die. That is what the ashes symbolize on Ash Wednesday. During the distribution of ashes, the priest has the option of saying: "Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return." Some Catholics place a replica of a skull on their desk or in their prayer space during Lent as a reminder of the inevitability of death.

You might wonder why we should be so morbid during this time. The answer is that some focus on death can help us to set our priorities straight. We are not going to live in our current earthly setting forever. With regard to the stuff we accumulate, as the title of the play says, "you can't take it with you." The only thing we can take with us is what we have built up in our souls, for good or for ill. In the season of Lent, let us bear in mind that we are all going to die, and let us ponder in what spiritual state we would like to be when we cross over to the other side.

11) Pray for the Souls in Purgatory: The souls in Purgatory are people who have died in a state of grace but still need a certain amount of purification before they can reach full union with God in Heaven. These souls have been saved, and therefore they are called holy. They are certain to make it to Heaven, but only after their time of purging is over. The Church teaches that our prayers can help the holy souls in Purgatory reach Heaven faster. The souls in Purgatory can also pray for us. We can also be assured that once these souls have left Purgatory and made it to Heaven, in part at least due to our prayers, they will be delighted to pray for us in turn.

During the season of Lent, take a few minutes each day to pray for these souls. The article below has some good suggestions for how:

20 Ways to Pray for the Holy Souls in Purgatory

12) Celebrate the Feast Days: Though Lent is a time of penitential self-denial, a few days of feasting fall during the season. One is St. Patrick's Day (March 17), which has become hugely important in American culture. Another is the Feast of St. Joseph (March 19), which also entails cultural celebrations, though on a lower scale, at least in the United States. Thirdly, we have the Feast of the Annunciation, which sometimes falls during Lent, but at other times might fall outside of it. Feasting is definitely appropriate on all of these days.

Traditionally, Laetare Sunday was another day when the Lenten discipline was relaxed. Laetare Sunday marks the halfway point toward Lent, and priests often wear rose colored vestments to highlight the occasion. This day can function as something of a halftime between the two halves of Lent.

What is more, every Sunday of Lent is considered a feast, in that Sundays can never be penitential, since they are a celebration of the resurrection. Technically, our Lenten discipline does not apply to Sundays. However, some debate exists in the Church as to whether or not we should stop our penitential practices during Sundays in Lent. Personally, I think that depends on what those practices are. If we are seeking to uproot a bad habit, we should not return to it on the Sundays of Lent. If we are seeking to establish a new good habit, like praying daily, we should not discontinue what we are doing on Sundays. But if we gave up something like chocolate, we could theoretically go back to it on Sundays. However, we should bear in mind, that for many, it's easier to give things up for the whole duration of Lent then to go back to them here and there.

Share Your Own Ideas: I hope that the above list has given you some good ideas for your Lenten discipline. If you have Lenten ideas of your own, please share them with me, so that I can expand this list (giving you due credit of course).

Printable Format: This article is available for download as a PDF. Please feel free to share the PDF with others either electronically or in printed format.

12 Ways to Make Lent a Life-changing Experience PDF

Photo Credit: Our Lady of Sorrows inside the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela by Zoltan Abraham (c) 2017

Monday, March 4, 2019

7 Ways to Prepare for Lent during the Septuagesima Season

Traditionally, the third Sunday before Lent started a period of preparation for the Lenten season, called the Septuagesima season. The current, post-Vatican II calendar of the Catholic Church no longer recognizes this pre-Lenten period, but there is nothing to stop rank-and-file Catholics from observing it as a private devotion in order to gain a greater sense of focus in time for the start of Lent.

The three Sundays before Lent were traditionally called Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima Sundays, respectively, from the Latin words for 70th, 60th, and 50th. I will not go into details of the history of this naming convention here, but I will provide some links to further reading at the end. Suffice it to say that in the past the pre-Lenten period took its name from the first of these Sundays, Septuagesima.

So what should we do differently during these three pre-Lenten weeks? Let us explore seven ways that we can prepare for Lent during the Septuagesima season:

1. Self-examination: A large part of our Lenten discipline is the quest to improve in our character. Our repeated individual choices add up to form our habits. The aggregate of our habits forms of our character. Thus, if we want to change something about our character, we need to uproot at least one undesirable habit and create a new, life-giving one.

Lent gives us a period of six and a half weeks in which to accomplish this transformation, which is just enough time to change a habit, with focus and discipline. The preparation period of the Septuagesima season gives us an opportunity for self-examination, to discern which part of ourselves needs transformation the most. Many differed methods of self-examination have been developed over the years. Here, I will discuss three.

Do an examination of conscience every day during your prayer time. An examination of conscience is a review of our behavior, looking at different categories, to assess in what ways we have fallen short morally. Many forms of examination of conscience are available online. I will link here to one offered by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops:

A Brief Examination of Conscience

Another exercise you can do during the Septuagesima season is to reflect each day during your prayer time on one area of your life that you would like to improve upon. Make sure to consciously name an area for improvement each day. If you keep coming back to some of the same things, that gives you a good indication of where you should start making changes during Lent.

A more elaborate exercise involves concentric circles. The circles represent the human being. We might say that, while not everyone is a believer, everyone is a worshiper - everyone worships something, if not God, then someone or something other than God. We worship that which is in the center of our being. The exercise helps us to determine what is really in our center, what are the things that are further out from our center.

For the Septuagesima season, do the concentric circles in three stages. Print or draw two sets of circles for each week. The first week, take one set of circles and write in them what you discern to be in the center of your being at this stage of your life, putting them in the very center of the image. Then move from the center, writing down things further out in each circle. Some things that are not at all a part of your life you could put outside of the circles altogether. Next, take another set of circles and do the same exercise, but this time focus on what you would like to see in the center of your life and what you would like to see further out. The exercise will highlight areas of your life where you are falling short and where you could be working on improvements during Lent.

The second week of the Septuagesima season, take another set of concentric circles and do the same sort of exercise, but focusing on how you spend your money, putting the things you spend most money on in the center, and other things further out, according to how much money you spend on them. Next, do the same exercise, but this time focus on how you would like to spend your money, putting the things you would like to spend most on in the center, and the things you would like to spend less on further out.

Lastly, during the third week of the Septuagesima season, which is a shorter week, focus on time. Once again, start with a set of concentric circles and write in the center what you spend most of your time with. Next, write in the things you spend less time with, moving further and further from the center. Finally, do the same exercise, but focus on how you would like to spend your time, putting what you would like to spend most of your time with in the center, and the rest further and further out.

The idea behind all of these exercises is that self-awareness is the beginning of any meaningful transformation. We cannot work on fixing a problem in our lives until we acknowledge that it exists. Using the Septuagesima season to reflect on our areas of brokenness will help us to have a clear idea of where we need to focus once Lent begins.

2. Wean Yourself: An important part of the Lenten observance, is giving something up for the duration of Lent, such as a favorite snack or drink or activity. By giving something up, we develop a greater sense of discipline over our actions and our body. Also, giving something up can highlight just how dependent we are on creature comforts throughout the day. As we feel the sense of lack and emptiness left in us by not having our favorite treat or not watching our favorite show, we can use those moments to invite God more fully into our lives. The deprivation can help us refocus, so that we seek our comfort in God, rather than in our usual creature comforts.

Equally importantly, we can offer up the suffering caused by our self-denial for the well-being of others. An important principle of Catholic spirituality is that suffering accepted with good grace has a great deal of spiritual value, which we can offer for another person, who will receive graces through our gift of the spiritual fruit of our suffering. In offering our suffering for the benefit of others, we are imitating Christ himself, who offered the spiritual fruits of the ultimate sacrifice, his death upon the Cross, for the salvation of humanity. In fact, we might say, that offering up our suffering for others is the most Christ-like thing we can do.

At the same time, as we embark on a form of Lenten self-denial, we should be careful that we don't become angry, grumpy, or generally less functional as a result of our Lenten discipline. For example, if giving up coffee makes you unbearable to be around, you are defeating the purpose of your sacrifice. But this is where the period of the Septuagesima season can be especially helpful. If you know that giving something up cold turkey at the beginning of Lent would create problems, you can use the two and a half weeks of the Septuagesima season to wean yourself from that source of comfort or pleasure gradually. Going back to the coffee example, few regular coffee drinkers can give up coffee overnight without some serious withdrawal symptoms. But if you reduce your coffee intake gradually over the Septuagesima season, by Ash Wednesday you will be more ready to deal with the deprivation.

3. Celebrate: Our ancestors observed Lent much more strictly than we do. The regulations for fasting and for abstinence from meat were much more demanding. In times past, Catholics would engage in some form of fasting almost every day of Lent and also maintained an essentially vegan diet during the season. That is a far cry from today's regulations, which mandate abstinence from meat (but not all animal products) on the Fridays of Lent and Ash Wednesday, and fasting on just Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, with fasting being defined as one full meal, two smaller meals that add up to one meal, and no snacking in between – which is still eating better than much of the rest of the world on a good day.

Given the severity of their Lenten discipline, our Catholic ancestors liked to engage in some merrymaking before the Lenten season would start. They would stage costume parties and parades and would indulge in some fine foods. They had their last hurrah before the long season of self-denial would start. In fact, the word carnival, comes from a Latin word that literally means "farewell to meat." Some areas, like New Orleans, still cherish elaborate pre-Lenten celebrations.

The Church has always approved of merrymaking, as long as it is wholesome and in moderation. While the secularized pre-Lenten celebrations today tend to be over-the-top and overly self-indulgent, Catholics should feel free to have some good-natured fun before Lent. Throw a costume party. Indulge in some fine foods, like tasty meat dishes. Have a good time with family and friends. If you invite non-Catholic family or friends to your gathering, you can mention that such celebrations are traditionally done in anticipation of Lent and you can weave in some discussion of the meaning of the season of Lent.

Just bear a few things in mind as you party. Don't indulge in ways that would require regret and repentance later. If you are weaning yourself off of something, don't sabotage your own efforts in the course of your merrymaking. Also, remember that the celebrations during the the Septuagesima season would historically corresponded in degree to the severity of the Lenten discipline in which people would engage. So if you throw a good party, make sure you truly engage in some corresponding sense of self-denial during Lent.

4. Go to Confession: Catholics are required by Canon Law to go to Confession at least once a year if they are conscious of a mortal sin. Of course, it's good to go to Confession much more often. At least once a month is a good practice, especially on the first Saturday of the month, in order to be able to participate in the Five First Saturdays devotion.

A lot of Catholics go to Confession twice a year, during Advent and Lent. Lent is definitely a good time to go to Confession. But I would recommend doing so already before Lent starts. In fact, the last three days before Lent have historically been known as "Shrovetide" in English, from the word "shrive," an older English word meaning Confession. As the name Shrovetide suggests, traditionally Catholics would go to Confession in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday. By doing so, you can start with a clean spiritual slate at the beginning of Lent and can focus on uprooting the sinful habits you had just confessed, replacing them with spiritually life-giving practices.

5. Make Your Home Decor More Stark: During Lent, decorations inside Catholic churches are kept to a bare minimum to signify the sense of self-denial and penitence characteristic of the season. Do the same at home. Remove some of your usual decorations until Easter. As the Easter season begins, bring them back, with additional Easter decorations.

6. Bury the Alleluia: During Lent, we do not use the word "alleluia" in the Catholic Church. In fact, in the pre-Vatican II liturgy, the use of alleluia was already discontinued starting with Septuagesima Sunday. Alleluia is a word of celebration and joy going back to biblical times. By depriving ourselves of this word during Lent, we highlight the sense of penitence and self-denial during the season. Then, when the alleluia returns at Easter, our celebration of the Resurrection is all the more joyful.

One old custom in the Catholic Church is to write the word "alleluia" on a scroll or nice piece of paper, then place it in a box and bury it as a way of saying good-bye to the word before the penitential season begins. The box would then be dug up and opened at Easter.

If you have a place where you can bury such a box, do so on Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. If you don't have an area where you can bury something, you could place the box on a shelf, indicating that the "alleluia" has been put away until Easter Sunday arrives.

7. Celebrate Fat Thursday and Fat Tuesday: As Lent approaches, Catholics traditionally indulge in some foods that they will go without during the penitential season. Two specific days of such feasting are Fat Thursday, which is the last Thursday before Ash Wednesday, and Fat Tuesday, which is the day before Ash Wednesday. On Fat Tuesday specifically there was a custom of using up the remaining animal fats, which would not be consumed again until Easter. Many Catholics would make pancakes on Fat Tuesday, since pancakes were an easy way to use up all the animal fats.

I hope you found the above suggestions helpful. Let me know if have other suggestions for preparing during the Septuagesima season. Wishing you a blessed, spiritually enriching Lenten season!

Further Reading:

What is Septuagesima?

What Are Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima Sundays?

How to pregame Lent: Septuagesima, Carnival, and Shrovetide

Fat Thursday: Poland’s Tastiest Tradition

15 Indulgent Recipes for a Festive Fat Tuesday

39 Recipes to Splurge on for Fat Tuesday

Photo Credit: Ozette Loop on Olympic Peninsula by Zoltan Abraham (c) 2018.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

How Medjugorje Transformed My Life

Almost a year ago, my wife and I traveled to Medjugorje for two days. The experience was powerfully transformative for both of us. In the video below, I describe how my life has changed since that brief visit to the town of Medjugorje.