In less than two weeks we will begin the season of Lent. I always approach it with trepidation and uncertainty. I ask myself how I should observe this season in which the Church calls us to look at our lives and deepen our relationship with God. How should I do penance? How can I deepen my spirituality?
I always feel daunted and—if I follow my usual plan—deprived. Six weeks without chocolate seems like a journey into a desert with no oases. I know that give-ups are just the beginning of a closer walk with God, a way of focusing the mind and body on prayer, meditation and the interior life. They are not an end in themselves. But that’s no comfort; it just reminds me how much farther, spiritually speaking, I have to go.
Pondering this and seeking a better sense of direction, I called my friend Father Christopher Monturo, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua parish in West Harrison, to get his insights and to ask how, based on his experience, Catholics approach Lent.
I was surprised when he said, “Oddly enough, I think people look forward to it.”
I don’t remember ever feeling that way. I realized that I might have to change my perspective.
Father Monturo continued, “I think people generally see Lent as an opportunity for renewal, for spiritual growth, or maybe as an opportunity to experience the sacrament of reconciliation, which they might not have experienced in a long time.”
He spoke of Lent as an exterior and interior journey. It’s a journey through the liturgical season: Ash Wednesday, the Stations of the Cross, Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and the solemn rites of Holy Thursday and Good Friday, culminating in the joyous celebration of Christ’s Resurrection.
Lent is also “a six-week microcosm of the journey of life back to God, from whom we came,” Father Monturo said. He noted that the ashes imposed on Ash Wednesday remind us of our mortality and “our littleness before God,” our total dependence on him.
He added something that I particularly liked: The ashes remind him not just of death, but also, in a way, of baptism.
“We have literally come forth from the dust of the earth,” he said. We begin as creatures with natural life, but baptism brings us supernatural life. It makes us sharers in the life of God as we journey through our lives and back to him. In Lent as in life, we struggle, we fail sometimes, we admit that we are sinners, and we pick ourselves up and keep moving forward.
Father Monturo noted that Palm Sunday and Holy Week focus our attention on what Christ suffered for us, and that Good Friday is “the ultimate expression of love, personified.” The Resurrection is the manifestation of the new life that Christ won for us.
“Some people might perhaps see Lent as a sad or depressing time, but I think it’s a very hopeful time,” Father Monturo said. “It’s a time of renewal.” The message of Lent, he added, is: “This is a time when I can start over again. I can start fresh.”
How to do that? First, by imitating Christ; Father Monturo noted that the Gospels tell us that Jesus often withdrew to a quiet place for prayer, especially before the important events of his life. We can put aside the distractions of social media and entertainment, and the electronic devices that seem to run our lives, and quiet ourselves. We can take time to rediscover the love that God has for us, to deepen our relationship with him, and to prepare for Holy Week and Easter.
Father Monturo strongly recommends going to confession on Reconciliation Monday, April 10. Having participated in that tradition, I recommend it, too. It really does impart that peace which, in Christ’s words, the world cannot give.
After talking with Father Monturo, I realized that while I need to begin Lent with a commitment to prayer and reflection, I don’t need a checklist of things to do. I just need to go forward in hope, and lift up my mind and heart to God.