Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Fire, the Lampstand, and Our Lady of All Nations: A Reflection on Notre Dame


On the morning of Monday, April 15, I felt a strong desire to pray the Seven Sorrows Rosary, a special prayer reflecting on the sorrows of the Virgin Mary. I try to pray this prayer every day, and I was planning to say it later in the day, but my desire was growing to start it right away. Just then, I glanced at my Twitter feed and saw that Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was on fire. I quickly looked at news sources and watched in utter horror as the top of the building was engulfed in flames.

No words could describe my grief as I was witnessing what seemed like the destruction of one of the most magnificent jewels of Western civilization. So much history, culture, art, and spirituality has been connected with and has been symbolized by this one building, dating back to the 12th century. For a while, I could not stop watching the livestream of the conflagration, listening intently for the slightest bit of news. But in time, I turned off the sound and started to pray the Seven Sorrows Rosary, while still watching the raging fire devouring the resplendent building. At that time, it seemed that the roof had collapsed, and the interior was being completely annihilated by the flames.

My grief only grew during the day. In January, I had the good fortune of being able to visit Notre Dame on a long layover in Paris. I attended morning Mass and toured the building, taking many pictures of the priceless artwork. I climbed the north tower, where I could see the famed gargoyles from up close and could admire a panoramic view of Paris. But now this venerable old building of marvels seemed to be on the brink of complete collapse.

As I watched the livestream, I could not help but think that the conflagration was a metaphor for the state of the Catholic Church in much of the Western world today. We are facing the greatest crisis in Catholicism since the Protestant Reformation. In fact, the scale of the decline is arguably far greater than during the 16th century. In many formerly flourishing Catholic areas the Church is little more now than a burnt out shell.

A chilling line from the Book of Revelation haunted me during the day. Christ says to the Ephesians: "Yet I hold this against you: you have lost the love you had at first. Realize how far you have fallen. Repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent." (Revelation 2:4-5)

The burning of this awe-inspiring gem of Western history also reminded me of the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien. In so many passages, he depicts the fallen buildings and monuments of a once great society that has collapsed due to its own corruption or has been destroyed by enemies. The conflagration of Notre Dame seemed to me like an apt metaphor for the fall of Western civilization which we are witnessing today.

We have abandoned our roots, we have turned away from the blessings that once gave us greatness. We have forgotten how to build a magnificent world and how to maintain it. The West is now collapsing. We are falling. We are becoming the burnt out shell of our former glory. Such were my gloomy thoughts as the fires raged in Notre Dame Cathedral.

But as the day unfolded, I found hope unexpectedly. As the heroic firefighters subdued the flames, good news started to emerge. The interior, which initially seemed to have been completely destroyed, turned out to have been relatively untouched by the devastation. The gilded cross above the main altar shone bright in the initial pictures of the interior. The beautiful statue of the Pieta, Our Lady of Sorrows, situated under the cross, her arms open, also survived intact.

If the fire was a metaphor for the state of Catholicism in the West, then the miraculous survival of so much beauty inside was perhaps a metaphor that all is not yet lost. The Catholic Church, though bruised and battered in the West, has not yet fallen. Our lampstand has not yet been taken from us. We have work to do. We have so much to offer to a world that needs so desperately the grace entrusted to us by Christ.

The spontaneous outpouring of grief, support, solidarity, and love on social media, not just from Catholics but many people from all walks of life, showed that the majestic Cathedral and what it symbolizes still resonates deeply in our society. Notre Dame embodies something that people need deep down in their hearts and still want on some level, even if they cannot articulate that desire. As the fires raged, perhaps another fire was being kindled in the hearts of many – the desire to return to our spiritual roots. So it seemed as so many on social media shared a clip of the crowd that had assembled near the building singing the Ave Maria. That beautiful clip, capturing the most beloved prayer to Our Lady, will forever be associated with the public response to the conflagration. In fact, the crowds sang and prayed for hours outside.

Notre Dame means Our Lady. She is the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. The cathedral houses many beautiful depictions of Mary, among them several images of her from other parts of the world. While the building is a symbol of French culture and history, spiritually Notre Dame belongs to all the world. Our Lady is not just the Lady of Paris or of France, but, as we might call her, Our Lady of All Nations. As the world mourns for the cathedral that has so majestically honored our Blessed Mother for so long, let us invite the people of the world into Our Lady's open and outstretched arms, so that she can enfold us all in her motherly embrace and lead us to that true peace that only her Son can give.


Photo Credit: Initial picture of the interior of Notre Dame Cathedral after the fire released to the media and widely circulated on the Internet.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Hard-hitting Unplanned Unmasks Abortion Industry


Unplanned opens with a heart-rending sequence. Abby Johnson (played by Ashley Bratcher), the young director of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Texas, on whose true life story the film is based, is asked to assist with an abortion in her own facility, due to staff shortage. Even though she has worked at the clinic for years, and has recently become its director, she had never actually observed an ultrasound guided abortion procedure before. Her task now is to manage the ultrasound, which projects an image of the baby about to be aborted. She watches in horror as the baby struggles to get away from the suction tube. Her horror intensifies as she sees the ultrasound image of the baby break apart and disappear into the tube.

The inhuman spectacle is the turning point in Abby's life, her moment of conversion. We then see in flashback how her life unfolded up to this moment, going from the daughter of a pro-life family to a professional in the abortion industry, who, at the pinnacle of her career, receives an employee of the year award from Planned Parenthood. We also see where her conversion leads her, and the new life that awaits her as she becomes a pro-life advocate. Though the movie starts in darkness and is not afraid to confront horrors that our society does not want us to discuss openly, the story also offers hope and shows the power of love and forgiveness.

The pivotal ultrasound sequence described above, though CGI, is admittedly difficult to watch. Three other scenes are also very disturbing: At one point, Abby takes the RU486 abortion pill, leading to profuse bleeding, clotting, and agonizing pain, nearly causing her death. In another scene, we see a teenage girl nearly bleed to death due to complications from her abortion. At one point, we also witness the casual inspection of severed baby parts in a routine protocol done after each abortion to ensure that no parts of the child got left behind in the mother's body.

The above sequences are decidedly disturbing. Nevertheless, they are much less gory than many movies today, including ones with a PG-13 rating. Some viewers will find the images deeply upsetting. Others, inured to violence in movies, will be less affected. But if the images do not come to preoccupy our minds after watching the film, they definitely should. They should haunt our dreams. Since 1973, approximately 60 million children have been killed through abortion in the United States, a higher volume of death than even the greatest mass murders of human history have been able to engineer. If the movie has a fault, it is not that it is too gory, but rather that it is too gentle in depicting the reality of this large-scale slaughter, so casually accepted in our society.

But though the film is not as gory as it might have been, the story does much to unmask the reality of the abortion industry, specifically the world of Planned Parenthood. Unplanned pulls no punches in depicting the physical and emotional pain associated with abortion procedures, and the psychological scars that last a lifetime. The ultrasound sequence we see at the beginning is also especially significant because such images would not be seen by women seeking an abortion. Company policy prevents them from being shown the ultrasound of their child, lest they have second thoughts. The film also explores other ways that many women are pressured, bullied, misled, and lied to in order to get them to abort. We see that, far from seeking to make abortions rare, Planned Parenthood works to increase its abortion quotas, because abortion is big money. We see that abortion, in fact, is Planned Parenthood's chief source of income, hence the pressure to perform more and more.

At the same time, the movie doesn't shy away from depicting problems in the pro-life movement either. Some prolife protesters are shown as misguided or even mean-spirited, and definitely counter-productive. But Unplanned also explores highly effective forms of pro-life outreach, giving us a model for how it should be done. Above all, the film emphasizes the tremendous power of prayer in combating abortion. At one point, Abby discusses her observation that on days when people would pray outside the clinic, the number of no-shows to abortion appointments would dramatically increase. Prayer also plays a significant role in her conversion from a champion of abortion to a pro-life advocate.

No wonder secular forces have opposed this movie from the get-go. During the film's production, Disney, Sony, Universal, and Round Hill Music all refused to provide rights to some music for the making of the film. The MPAA gave the movie an unexpected R rating, despite the fact that Unplanned contains much less gore than many PG-13 movies. Ironically, in many places in the country, underage girls can get an abortion without parental consent, but they would require the consent of their parents to be able to see this movie about abortion. As Unplanned prepared to open, most TV networks rejected advertising for the film, and most secular critics predictably savaged it in their reviews. The day after the grand opening, Twitter suspended the promotional Twitter page for the movie for a portion of the crucial Saturday of opening weekend. Oddly (or perhaps not so oddly), the topic of the film did not start to trend on Twitter, despite a very high volume of engagement.

The secular efforts to sabotage the film should make us all the more determined to see it and to share it with others. In fact, Unplanned has been called the Uncle Tom's Cabin of the pro-life movement. Just like the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin exposed the realities of slavery, thereby turning public opinion in the North against that inhuman institution, so also Unplanned can help multitudes to see the truth about abortion. The power of the abortion movement has been in hiding that truth, disguising the grizzly reality of abortion through double-speak, obfuscation, and euphemisms. Unplanned breaks through that carefully choreographed facade, and brings us face-to-face with the true reality of what is actually happening in our society.

The secular institutions of our society will continue to try to hinder and suppress this film. Therefore, we must take it upon ourselves to spread the word. All churches should have viewings of Unplanned. All high school youth groups and adult formation programs should see it and discuss it. If any single work can galvanize our country to confront decisively the horror of abortion, it is Unplanned.

In addition to its essential message, Unplanned exhibits very high production value. The movie is well acted, and the story is told with great cinematic skill. Unplanned, put out by PureFlix, an online Christian streaming service, shows, along with other recent powerful Christian movies such as I Can Only Imagine and Paul: Apostle of Christ, that Christian filmmaking has, at long last, come of age. We can hope for many more well-made Christian productions to provide an alternative to Hollywood's agenda.

In closing, let me return to where I started, the CGI ultrasound sequence at the beginning of the film. The scene is disturbing not only because of the depiction of the dismembering of a living child, but also because of the image of the empty womb after the abortion. Where moments before there was a human child, now there is only darkness and emptiness. That image shows powerfully one of the saddest aspects of abortion – the missing children. How many parents have been robbed of children, how many grandparents of their grandchildren? How many children of their siblings? How many couples longing to adopt a child have been denied the opportunity to do so? How many great works of art have not been created, how many inventions have remained uninvented due to so many children being dismembered in the womb?

As I watched the film, these words of Scripture came to mind: "In Ramah is heard the sound of sobbing, bitter weeping! Rachel mourns for her children, she refuses to be consoled, for her children - they are no more!" (Jeremiah 31:15) I cried too during the film. Profusely. We should all cry, bitterly. And we should pray, and fast, and offer sacrifices, and speak out, and work for a society in which a mother killing her own child is no longer described as "women's health."

Sources:

Twitter inexplicably suspends Unplanned movie account on opening weekend

Unplanned Official Site

Photo Credit: The photo included in this article is a promotional still circulating on the Internet.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Praying to St. Joseph for Healing and Peace

Let us pray to St. Joseph for healing and peace in our hearts, in our homes, in our families, in our communities, and in the world.

Prayer to St. Joseph after the Rosary
by Pope Leo XIII

To you, O blessed Joseph,
do we come in our tribulation,
and having implored the help of your most holy Spouse,
we confidently invoke your patronage also.

Through that charity which bound you
to the Immaculate Virgin Mother of God
and through the paternal love
with which you embraced the Child Jesus,
we humbly beg you graciously to regard the inheritance
which Jesus Christ has purchased by his Blood,
and with your power and strength to aid us in our necessities.

O most watchful guardian of the Holy Family,
defend the chosen children of Jesus Christ;
O most loving father, ward off from us
every contagion of error and corrupting influence;
O our most mighty protector, be kind to us
and from heaven assist us in our struggle
with the power of darkness.

As once you rescued the Child Jesus from deadly peril,
so now protect God's Holy Church
from the snares of the enemy and from all adversity;
shield, too, each one of us by your constant protection,
so that, supported by your example and your aid,
we may be able to live piously, to die in holiness,
and to obtain eternal happiness in heaven.

Amen.

Source: USCCB

Photo Credit: The Death of St. Joseph at Immaculate Conception Church in Seattle by Zoltan Abraham (c) 2017.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Angel from Beyond Sent to Fight the Evil One - The Religious Themes of Alita: Battle Angel

Alita: Battle Angel has deep religious themes, rooted in the Bible and some apocryphal writings, like the Book of Enoch. Below is my attempt at understanding the religious imagery of the film. I am indebted for some of my ideas to the analysis of YouTuber David Stewart, but I take a somewhat different approach, and I focus much more on New Testament parallels. I should also say that I have not read the original manga series, nor did I have any prior familiarity with the story of Alita. My analysis is rooted in what I observed in the film. (Please note that this article contains spoilers.)

The key story in the background of Alita is the war among the angels. In the Bible, we see references to a war in Heaven. The angels, who are created before humankind, are offered an eternal existence in Heaven, imbued with God's love and light. But Lucifer rejects God's love and wants to set himself up as an authority in place of God. He rebels against God and persuades many of the other angels to join his rebellion. As Lucifer and his followers begin their war, the faithful angels fight back and drive them out of Heaven.

The fallen angels are driven to Hell, a place where they are separated, through their own choice, from the love of God, which would have given them eternal peace, joy, and fulfillment. In Hell, they are filled with anger, hatred, bitterness, and an utter sense of restlessness, an utter lack of fulfillment. They now seek to thwart God's plans. They want to mar the new creation he is about to bring into being, the human race.

Taking the form of a serpent, Lucifer succeeds in corrupting Adam and Eve, the first parents of humanity, causing them to fall from grace, which brings about a rift between humanity and God. Once this rift happens, the distance between humanity and God keeps widening as human beings become more and more mired in self-destructive behavior. The fallen angels, who have caused the fall of humanity, now have dominion over human history. Their dominion is to continue until the coming of the Messiah, who will defeat their power and liberate humanity from the bondage of sin.

While Alita does not follow the above framework in its entirety, the film does borrow some key elements. The sky cities hovering over the Earth represent the dominion of the fallen angels. Against them were arrayed the forces of U.R.M., or the United Republics of Mars, who represent the holy angels of God. In the war that took place three hundred years before the start of the film, the army of U.R.M attacked the sky cities, with the goal of destroying their power. They succeeded in causing all of the sky cities to fall to Earth, and thereby be destroyed, except for one, Zalem.

Zalem, ruled over by a mysterious figure known as Nova, continues to have dominion, specifically over Iron City, the post-apocalyptic ruin of a once mighty metropolis, where today people scavenge off the ruins of their collapsed civilization. Order is kept in the city by a group of Hunter-Warriors, or bounty hunters, who are to kill for money anyone branded as wanted by the authorities, and who are supported in their grizzly work by giant military robot machines known as Centurions. The inhabitants of Iron City supply Zalem with various products taken up through sky elevators, and they live in the hope that one day they themselves may be admitted into the city in the sky. But entry into Zalem is not permitted, except for those who become champions in the brutal spot of Motorball.

The word "Zalem" is a variation on "Salem," which has a great deal of significance in the Bible. Salem is the city of the priest and king Melchizedek, who blesses Abraham, the father of the chosen people (Genesis 14:18–20). Salem is also the root of the word "Jerusalem," which becomes the capital of the Israelites. In the New Testament, the New Heaven and Earth to be created by God is described as the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:2).

In the film, Zalem is not the biblical heavenly realm, but a false heaven run by the figure of Nova. "Nova" is a word connoting bright light, as in a star going nova. The character of Nova represents Lucifer, whose name literally means "light-bearer," since he was a mighty being of light, before his fall. Zalem then is a false heaven ruled by the leader of the fallen angels.

The inhabitants of the Earth, symbolized by the inhabitants of Iron City, have been deceived into thinking that Zalem is the their salvation, and many of them are willing to do anything to be able to enter the sky city. We see that Hugo, Alita's boyfriend, is mired in a life of crime and betrayal in hopes of one day earning enough credits to make it to Zalem. But the one way to reach that coveted realm is, as mentioned above, to become champion in the bloody sport of Motorball. In the game of Motorball only those can win who alter their bodies to become more and more like monstrous cyborgs, and who harden their hearts to become more and more cruel in their willingness to defeat the competition.

Thus, only those who become thoroughly dehumanized can hope to reach Zalem. In this dynamic, we can see the operation of the fallen angels. They present a false heaven for people to aspire to, which people can only enter by becoming less and less human. In this way, the fallen angels continue their destruction of humanity, to which they committed themselves even before the creation of the human race by God.

Another important element in the background of Alita is the story of the Nephilim. The Nephilim are mentioned only briefly in the Bible (Genesis 6:1–4, Numbers 13:32-33), but much more is said about them in the apocryphal Book of Enoch. As the story goes, some of the fallen angels, also called the Watchers, came down to Earth to mate with human women, and they produced giants as offspring, called the Nephilim. The Bible does not go into detail with regard to the fate of the Nephilim, except that they became great warriors. The Book of Enoch offers a much longer narrative.

In the backstory of Alita, Dr. Ido and Dr. Chiren are a married couple of highly talented cyborg doctors, who appear to be two Watchers, or fallen angels, who have come down from Zalem. Once on Earth, they occupied themselves with creating cyborgs for the Motorball tournaments. While they did not physically mate with humans, they made offspring by transforming human beings into giant cyborg warriors, thereby advancing Nova's scheme of dehumanizing the human race.

However, after the murder of his daughter at the hands of a cyborg he created, Ido repents of his involvement with the Motorball and dedicates himself to helping humans by using his cyborg doctor skills to provide prosthetic limbs for those who have been maimed in some way. As a part of his repudiation of his past, he removes a diamondlike mark from his forehead, which in worn by all those who live in Zalem and is reminiscent of the mark of the beast in the Book of Revelations (Revelation 13:11–18). By contrast, Chiren continues with her dark machinations. She keeps her mark, and the two become estranged.

At the start of the story, Ido is scavenging through a junk yard made up of electrical waste thrown out from Zalem above, and he comes across the head and core of a cyborg, who is still alive. He reconstructs her, initially giving her the body he had intended for his crippled daughter. In time the girl, whom he names Alita after his deceased daughter, turns out to be a warrior cyborg from the United Republics of Mars, who had been on a mission to destroy Nova.

Ido refers to Alita as an angel, and her name means "winged" in in Spanish. In terms of the angelic war that forms the backdrop to the story of the film, Alita is one of the good angels, who had come from beyond the sky cities, to battle the fallen angels who have sought dominion over humanity.

First, however, Alita must grow and learn about herself and the world where she now finds herself. Here the film departs significantly from today's movie convention, whereby the young heroes are shown to mature and solve problems, not by learning from the wisdom of their parents and other elders, but by rebelling against authority figures. By contrast, Alita learns to trust Ido, whom she comes to see as her father. Nor is Ido depicted according to today's Hollywood convention, which seeks to attack all father figures as either useless or abusive. Ido is genuinely loving and caring toward Alita, whom he sees as his daughter from the beginning. Though at first he is somewhat overprotective (which is understandable considering how his first daughter died), in time he realizes that he cannot stand in the way of Alita's destiny to be a battle angel, from which point forward, he supports her development as a warrior wholeheartedly. The bond that develops between the two is tender, wholesome, and beautiful to see in a movie made in today's cultural landscape.

As the film unfolds, we gradually learn the true significance of Alita's character. As David Stewart points out, the figure of Alita has some messianic resonances in the story. She is a higher being, who takes on a human body. After her earthly body is destroyed, she receive a new, perfected body from above. In the New Testament, we see that Christ is God incarnate, who has taken on a human body. After his crucifixion, he resurrects from the dead and receives a new, perfected body that is still physical, but no longer bound by our limitations. The parallels between Alita and Christ only go only so far, but clearly Alita is meant to be seen as a messianic figure, who has come for the salvation of the inhabitants of Iron City.

Throughout the course of the film, Alita gradually grows into her redemptive role. On her first day out in her new world, when she as yet has no memories of her past, she instinctively saves a puppy from a Centurion, a military machine used to keep order in the city, foreshadowing that her whole identity is going to be about saving others.

Later in the film, she literally offers her heart to her boyfriend, Hugo, in order to help him raise enough money to leave the Iron City and move to Zalem. Though at the time her action is based on imperfect knowledge of what Zalem is, her action is born of the self-giving love that characterizes her. In fact, the offer of her heart has resonances of the Catholic devotional belief that Jesus offers his Sacred Heart and the Blessed Virgin Mary, her Immaculate Heart to the faithful as conduits of divine grace.

Later in the movie, Alita exerts all of her power to save Hugo from Zapan, a corrupt Hunter-Warrior, who has tracked him down and is determined to kill him. The bounty hunter has framed Hugo for murder and has now wounded him. When Alita arrives, Zapan tells her that Hugo is wanted for murder and also reveals to her that Hugo has led a life of crime, jumping cyborgs and stealing parts from them. Alita has two choices: she can let Zapan kill Hugo, or she has to kill Hugo herself. Any attempt to rescue Hugo will be seen as a violation of the laws of the city, which would make her a wanted criminal.

She escapes from Zapan for the moment by taking Hugo inside an old abandoned Catholic church, hoping to find some solution to the problem. Inside the church, we see quick glimpses of statues of saints, as well as a statue of Jesus. Hugo now confesses his sins to Alita, and she responds with loving forgiveness. The scene, set inside a Catholic church, is reminiscent of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, where the penitent confesses his sins to a priest, and the priest gives absolution. Hugo finds redemption through Alita's self-sacrificial love.

At the same time, his life is still in danger. There seems be no way out of the trap that Zapan had set for them. However, unbeknownst to the two, someone is watching them. The whole scene is witnessed by Cherin, who now has a perfect opportunity to capture Alita. But she decides not to do so. Her heart is touched by witnessing such pure love, and, as her husband had done years before, she now decides to turn away from her evil ways. She reveals her presence and offers a solution to Alita.

The solution requires some drastic action. We do not see the details, but we can infer what happens. Alita has to decapitate Hugo, thereby killing him and fulfilling the law. However, she resuscitates Hugo and gives him new life by connecting his head to her powerful heart, until he can be placed inside a new cyborg body, which Ido provides for him later. The saving of Hugo has resonances of Christian baptismal theology, in that in Christian faith, we must die to our old self in order to be able to be reborn through the cleansing of baptism.

As the story continues, we learn that Cherin must pay a high price for her conversion. Nova no longer sees her as an ally. Her brain is removed from her body and is kept alive artificially, so that she can be sent to Zalem for as yet undisclosed purposes. The price she pays is reminiscent of the Christian concept of the cost of discipleship. Those who embrace the Gospel, must be prepared to encounter hatred for their faith and might have to pay with their lives for their commitment to Christ. But Christ also says not to be afraid of those who can destroy only the body, but to fear those who can destroy both the body and soul (Matthew 10:28). Cherin's body has been destroyed, and her mind will soon be shipped off to Zalem, for reasons we do not yet know. But although Nova seems to have triumphed over her, Cherin's soul is now free of the bondage of darkness. Even if they destroy her mind, she can still remain free from evil in her soul.

In the penultimate sequence of the movie, Hugo attempts to climb the space elevators to Zalem to escape from Iron City, because he fears the bounty hunters. Alita runs after him to stop him, but Nova activates one of the defense mechanisms of the sky city, which cuts Hugo into pieces. Alita attempts to save him from plunging to his death, but she is not able to do so. However, just before Hugo falls, he thanks Alita for saving him. Even though she could not save his physical life, she saved him spiritually, by helping him turn away from evil. In fact, "Hugo" means "soul." Alita saved Hugo by saving his soul.

As the movie concludes, Alita has won the Motorball championship. She now has secured passage to Zalem. She raises her sword toward the sky city, even as Nova watches from above. The battle of the angels is set to continue. Alita, the good angel sent from above, is going to battle Nova, the fallen angel, who has enslaved Iron City. The battle will be for the salvation of humanity.


Photo Credit: The photos included in this article are promotional stills circulating on the Internet.

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.
Amen

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.
Amen

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.
Amen

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.
Amen

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, February 14, 2019

14 Tips for a Catholic Celebration of St. Valentine's Day


Catholic reactions to Valentine's Day range from a whole-hearted embracing of the day with all of its commercialized dimensions, to utter disdain, wishing nothing more than that the day might be obliterated from our calendar. But I would propose an approach different from both of these. I would, instead, advocate for an intentionally Catholic celebration of the day. After all, whether Valentine's Day is a Christian holiday that was secularized, or a pagan holiday that was Christianized and then re-secularized, or simply a commercial holiday made up for the benefit of merchants, the day is tied to the date of a Catholic feast. As Catholics, let's claim, or reclaim, this day as St. Valentine's Day, and let's celebrate it as one of our special Catholic days.

Below are 14 tips for how we can do so (plus a bonus one at the end). These suggestions are intended for Catholic couples, but others might benefit from them as well.

1) Remember Our Eternal Calling: The focus of Valentine's Day is a celebration of human romance, but if we think of the day as St. Valentine's Day, it is also a great day to remember our eternal calling. God calls each of us into an enteral relationship of love. God is love and has created us to share his love with us. We can find ultimate, existential fulfillment only by accepting God's love and requiting his love by giving ourselves to him fully. As someone once said, Christianity is not a religion; it is a proposal of marriage. On St. Valentine's Day, let us reflect on God's call to each of us, whether single, dating, engaged, married, to enter into an eternal relationship of love with him.

2) Learn About St. Valentine: Many articles have been written about the history of St. Valentine's Day, so I will provide just a few details here and will include links for further reading below. St. Valentine was a third century priest or bishop who was martyred for his Christian faith during the persecution of the Christians in Rome, on February 14. A number of theories have been advanced as to why his feast day later became associated with romantic love. One theory posits that St. Valentine helped Christian young men and women get married in secret when the Emperor Claudius II banned marriages in order to bolster participation in his military campaigns by young men. The custom of exchanging tokens of love on St. Valentine's Day dates back to Medieval times and is first mentioned by the poet Chaucer. The holiday was commercialized by enterprising merchants in the 19th century.

Further reading:

History of St. Valentine

3 Things You Might Not Know About St. Valentine

What You Might Not Know About St. Valentine's Day

Shrine of St Valentine, Whitefriar Street Church

3) Pray to St. Valentine: Quite a few groups of people and causes are included under the patronage of St. Valentine. Among them are the young, those in love, those engaged, and the cause of happy marriages. Catholic couples would do well to pray to St. Valentine for help and protection, particularly on February 14, since prayers to saints are especially powerful on their feast days. Below is a suggested prayer.

Prayer to St. Valentine
St. Valentine, glorious martyr for Christ,
Patron of those in love,
We pray that you bless our relationship,
Help us to stay holy, always focused on Christ,
That we may love each other with the love of Christ,
Unselfishly, willing to sacrifice for each other,
Willing to carry the Cross for each other,
So that we may help each other
To grow in faith, hope, and love,
Reaching ever closer to full union with our Lord,
Giving him honor, glory, and praise in all that we do.
Amen.

4) Visit a Martyr's Shrine: If you live near a church or shrine dedicated to St. Valentine, make a point of visiting it on St. Valentine's Day. If no such places are to be found in your area, visit another church or shrine dedicated to the memory of a martyr.

5) Focus on Martyrs: Use this day as an opportunity to develop a relationship with the martyrs of Catholic history. Unfortunately, the word martyr is sometimes used in a negative sense in colloquial language, signifying someone who is overly dramatic in their self-sacrifice. But the original meaning of the word martyr is witness. Throughout Catholic history, martyrs have made the ultimate sacrifice to give witness to Christ, even to the shedding of their blood. They would rather lose their lives than deny Christ.

On St. Valentine's Day, commit to learning more about the lives of martyrs. Spend the next fourteen days reading about the life of a martyr every day. Also, start including prayers to the martyrs of our faith in your daily prayers.

6) Reflect on Self-sacrificial Love: A reflection on the lives of martyrs is very appropriate on a day that celebrates romantic love. True love is about unselfishly offering of ourselves for the benefit of the other, making sacrifices for the other, and if necessary, even laying our lives down for the other. Of course, in a healthy relationship, this sense of self-giving is from both sides. If only one person has a sacrificial outlook, and the other person just takes and does not give, the relationship will become toxic and abusive. But in a true love relationship, both sides foster an attitude of sacrificial self-giving, and it is precisely through such a disposition that they find lasting joy in their relationship.

7) Wear red: Red, of course, is the color associated with St. Valentine's Day. What many people don't realize is that red is the liturgical color commemorating martyrs. So wear red not because it is the color of romance, but because we are commemorating a martyr. If someone comments on your red attire, you could weave in a mention of honoring martyrs into your response.

8) Go to Mass Together: Many couples go out to eat on St. Valentine's Day. Romantic candle lit dinners can be wonderful. But before you eat out, take part in Mass, which is the anticipation of our eternal banquet with Christ. At Mass, we partake in the holy sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, which gives meaning to our own self-sacrificial love. At Mass, we receive the Body and Blood of Our Lord, which gives us eternal life and the strength to persevere in our day-to-day lives. What could be a more beautiful celebration of love on St. Valentine's Day than to share Mass together as a couple?

9) Spend Time in Adoration Together: Praying together as a couple is fundamental to strong, healthy, lasting relationship. If you are not already spending some time in prayer together every day, make a commitment to do so. The best place for personal prayer is in Adoration, whenever possible. While Adoration is not always accessible, make a point of going to Adoration together as a couple on St. Valentine's Day. Spending time in prayer together before our Lord is an inexhaustible source of blessings.

While in Adoration on St. Valentine's Day, read and reflect on biblical verses about love and marriage. Many websites have compiled such verses, but I would especially recommend the following:

44 Refreshing Bible Verses About Love and Marriage

10) Turn to Our Holy Mother: The best way to strengthen your relationship is to bring it under the guidance and protection of our Holy Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary. On St. Valentine's Day, take some time to consecrate your relationship to Our Lady. After your consecration, pray the Rosary together. The Luminous Mysteries would be most appropriate, since the second Luminous Mystery is the Wedding at Cana. Below is a suggestion for a prayer of consecration. If you can make it to Adoration and are alone together in the Adoration chapel, there is no reason why you couldn't say this this prayer and the Rosary, as well as the other prayers recommended in this article, out loud. But if others are present, say the prayers somewhere else, where you are not disturbing the prayers of others.

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 relationship 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.
Amen

11) Pray Over Each Other: Say a special prayer of blessing over each other for St. Valentine's Day, invoking our Lord, our Holy Mother, the martyrs and saints, and the holy angels. Pray to each other's guardian angels for each other. Below is a blessing prayer you could use.

Prayer of Blessing (Female Version)

Lord Jesus Christ, glorious King of Kings,
I pray that you bless [name] my [girlfriend, fiancée, wife].
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.
Amen

Prayer of Blessing (Male Version)

Lord Jesus Christ, glorious King of Kings,
I pray that you bless [name] my [boyfriend, fiancé, husband].
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.
Amen

12) Learn About the Theology of the Body: If you haven't already done so, St. Valentine's Day is a great day to start learning about the Theology of the Body, a systematic expression of the Catholic understanding of God's vision for human relationships, based especially on the teachings of St. John Paul II.

For further reading, please see the following site: Theology of the Body

13) Give a Spiritual Gift: Some people are put off by the commercialized gift-giving on St. Valentine's Day. But giving gifts is fun, and there is nothing wrong with the practice as long as we do so in moderation and with good judgment. In addition to, or in place of, customary gifts like chocolates, flowers, jewelry, and the like, why not give a spiritually oriented gift? How about a holy picture, statue of Our Lady or of a saint, a holy medal, a beautiful Rosary, or something similar?

If you are good at crafts, you could also make something of a religious significance, like a Rosary. Or consider having a Mass said for your beloved. Also, if you plan ahead, you can order some of the more conventional gifts, like chocolates or jewelry, from a religious supplier, like a convent or monastery, where they earn their living by making such items for sale. You can then help to support the life of a religious community while getting something nice for your sweetheart.

14) Enjoy Yourself: The Catholic Church has never had a problem with merrymaking, as long as we have fun responsibly, in moderation, and in accordance with the boundaries of our state of life. So have some wholesome fun. Just don't do anything that you will need to mention in Confession later.

15) Bonus Tip: Since the stores are full of heart-shaped candies and chocolates, put some aside in the freezer, and bring them out for the feast of the Sacred Heart and the feast of the Immaculate Heart in the summer as a special treat to enjoy on those days.


Photo: Tomb of St. Valentine in the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on Whitefriar Street in Dublin by Zoltan Abraham (c) 2018.