Lenten Retreat in Daily Living – Week 1

This Lent, I am offering a Lenten Retreat in Daily Living both in my parish, St. Hubert’s in Chanhassen, and at the University of St. Thomas. This is a retreat that is very special to me; I made this retreat as a retreatant during Lent in 2002 and it had a profound effect on both my daily prayer life and my subsequent discernment of where God was calling me.

Both retreats began earlier this week. The participants (16 at St. Hubert’s and about 30 at St. Thomas…please keep them in your prayers) have committed to daily prayer during the eight weeks of the retreat, with the prayer following the thematic approach of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. During that time we will also meet weekly for sharing of the prior week’s prayer experience and for some input relating to the subject of that week’s prayer and/or some elements of the Exercises or Ignatian prayer.

During the opening session, I gave a brief introduction to St. Ignatius and the Spiritual Exercises as well as some basic instruction in praying with scripture and some other dynamics of Ignatian prayer. You can find the recording of the opening session talk I gave at St. Thomas here. (The podcast runs for 26:47.) You can find here a copy of the prayer material for the first week of the retreat, as well as a couple of other handouts I distributed (which I refer to during the talk). Perhaps you want to pray along with us during Lent. As I did today, each week I’ll post a recording of my talks and a copy of the upcoming week’s prayer material.

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The Fasting God Wishes

One of the traditional Lenten observances is fasting. Although the only days on which Catholics are obligated to fast is on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, the practice is encouraged throughout Lent.

For many of us who grew up Catholic, our childhood fasting during Lent took the form of giving up some favorite food item – chocolate was a common thing to give up during Lent, as was soft drinks, or if one wanted to go all the way – all desserts. The practice of giving up something for Lent is, of course, not limited to children; one of my friends often gives up beer for Lent.

The first Mass reading for today, from Isaiah, suggests that we may be letting ourselves off the hook too easily if that is all we mean by fasting. The Lord might say as easily to us as He did to the people of Israel,

Do you call this a fast acceptable to the Lord? This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; Setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; Sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; Clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own.

I’m not saying we should not find things to give up during Lent. But we should think carefully about what we are fasting from, and what kind of fasting does greatest honor to God.

Many people participate in rice bowl projects during Lent. Our variation at the law school is a bread and water fast. On Fridays during Lent we are providing bread (sponsored by different student organizations) for students who wish to participate to have for their lunch that day. They are asked to donate what they would have spent on lunch to a fund that will then be donated to a local food bank. That’s one way of “sharing your bread with the hungry.” Doubtless there are many, many others. So ponder the words of Isaiah and think about what kind of Lenten fast would be “acceptable to the Lord.”

Choose Life

In today’s first Mass reading from the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people of Israel:

Today I have set before you life and prosperity, death and doom…I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live.

And what does it mean to choose life? Moses explains:

Choose life…by loving the Lord, your God, heeding his voice, and holding fast to him….by loving him, and walking in his ways, and keeping his commandments.

We are constantly faced with the same choice as were the Israelites. Each moment is a moment in which we choose life or death, blessing or curse. Each thought, each word, each deed moves us toward God or away from God, toward life or toward death, toward blessing or toward curse, toward wisdom or toward ignorance. Life for us comes from choosing the path of love, from choosing God.

Choose well. It sounds so simple. But we don’t always choose God. Like Paul, it seems like sometimes “I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate.”

And each time we do, God is right there, helping us to get up and dust ourselves off, offering us another opportunity…and another…and another.

Isn’t is grand that God is so patient with us?

The Beginning of Lent

Today, Ash Wednesday, is the beginning of Lent, the 40-day period preceding the death and resurrection of Christ. Lent is a special time in the cycle of the Catholic Church. It is a time in which we are invited to focus in a special way on our life with God, to nurture our relationship with God and to deepen our appreciation for God’s enormous and unconditional love for us.

Joyce Rupp writes, “The church is wise in offering us the season of Lent because it can be the very time we need to find what is missing in our lives; it can be the season to deliberately seek what has been tossed away or misplaced or ignored, so that our lives can once again reflect the gospel which Jesus encouraged us to live. Lent can be a searching out and a restoration time and the means for renewed direction.”

The traditional Lenten observances are fasting, almsgiving and prayer. In the words of Father William Joensen, “Each of us is entrusted during Lent with the sacred task of going into the soil of ourselves, inviting the Spirit to help us venture into the inmost recesses of our being: by more persistent prayer, by means of fasting calibrated to the demands and discipline of our personal lives, and by sharing our material, human resources in an intentional, consistent manner.”

It is not that we do these practices at Lent and not at other times. All of them should be part of our lives as a normal matter. However, as the Rupp passage I just quoted suggests, sometimes the busyness of our lives let us lose track, lose our focus on practices that are fundamental to who we are. So let today be our re-dedication of ourselves, a day on which re-commit ourselves to nurturing our relationship with our God and with each other.

Update: Busted Halo has a Lenten calendar containing suggestions for those seeking innovative ways to engage in the Lenten practices. You can find it here.

Another update: I earlier this month linked on the sidebar under “Interesting Items” Pope Benedict’s Lenten message. In case anyone missed it, you can read it here.

The “Virtue of Mortification”

I’ve referred any number of times to my deep commitment to the Vincentian charism and my ties to members of the Vincentian family. So it was with enthusiasm that I read last night the Lenten letter written by the Vincentian Superior General, Gregory Gay, C.M.

In a time of economic crisis that has affected the world, Fr. Gay asks if we should consider whether we tend to “act too quickly to protect ourselves and our own interests” and with insufficient concerns for the needs of others. He invites us to practice this Lent what he terms the “virtue of mortification.” After reminding us that the root of the word “mortification” is to sacrifice, putting others before oneself, he writes that the virtue of mortification

is an opportunity for us, as we say, to tighten our belts, to live more simply in order that those who are usually on the lower side of the scale will feel less the effects of the crisis than usual. We are asked to reverse the scenario, so that it be us and not them who feel the suffering. Saint Vincent practiced this continually when he referred to the poor as our lords and masters. He did not speak of a relationship of equals, but he went to the other extreme in order to help create a more balanced relationship….Rather than drawing in on ourselves in these times of crisis, enveloped in our own selfish attitudes, let this time of Lent be a time of solidarity.

Although written to the Vincentian family, the suggestions in Fr. Gay’s letter are ones worthy of being followed by all of us. All of us, as he suggests, “are part of the whole and are invited to live in harmony one with another…. [Lent] is a time of abandonment, a time of mortification, a time of reconciliation, a time of collaboration and solidarity. Lent is a time of harmony and peace. It is a time of new life. It is a time of movement from death to life, a time of moving out of oneself and moving towards the other, and the Other.”

You can read Fr. Gay’s Lenten message in its entirety on the famvin website here.

Your Sins I Remember No More

Last evening I attended, as I often do, the 6:00 p.m. Mass in our parish. (That is the Mass at which the teen choir – which includes my daughter – sings.) Although my morning prayer often includes praying with the Mass readings of the day, for some reason my prayer yesterday morning did not include any attention to the first reading, which came from the Book of Isaiah. Thus, I heard the reading for the first time as it was proclaimed at the 6:00 p.m. Mass. The lector was especially good, reading the passage slowly and prayerfully, allowing the words to really sink in.

The words that completely arrested me came toward the end of the passage. God says the people of Israel, “You burdened me with your sins, and wearied me with your crimes. It is I, I, who wipe out, for my own sake, your offenses; your sins I remember no more.”

Your sins I remember no more. At the very same time that I felt incredibly unburdened and filled with consolation from the sense of God forgetting my transgressions, I felt shame at how unable I am to say those same words to those who have sinned against me. I realized how easily thoughts of some transgression or another that someone has committed against me comes to my mind…even a very long time after the transgression itself.

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, we pray in the Lord’s Prayer. Sigh. God’s forgiveness includes not only wiping out our sins, but remembering them no more. I realized how often my own forgiveness of others does not live up to God’s forgiveness of me.

All I can do is pray for the grace to forgive as God does. To be able to “remember no more” the sins others have committed against me. Not an easy feat. Not a feat that is at all possible without God’s grace.

The Glow of Another Pilgrim Candle

Each of our individual spiritual journeys is exactly that – individual. We exist in community, we worship in community, indeed, our lives as Christians are fulfilled in communion with others. Despite that, and despite the fidelity of God’s being constantly by our side, we walk a solitary path. Each of our own journeys toward and with God is unique.

My friend Randy Buck wrote a play a long time ago called Adjoining Trances, about the relationship between Tennessee Williams and Carson McCulllers. (The play is currently being performed in Virginia.) The opening speech of the Williams character is one the sense of which I’ve never forgotten, although I couldn’t remember the exact words. Randy and I recently reconnected after not being in touch for a long time (something that fills me with absolute delight) and he sent me the excerpt. The Williams character, talking about writing and basis for his immediate bond with McCullers, says:

We remain apart. Yet even the most solitary soul seeks comfort. Companionship The hand stretches across the void, longing to find – something to cling to….[T]hough we each make the journey alone, there’s comfort in seeing the glow of another pilgrim candle valiantly pierce the night. Such a tiny light, so fragile, so easily extinguished, must be cherished, nurtured, or else we stumble alone through a dark no ray can brighten…

Although Williams is speaking about writing, he could easily have been speaking of the spiritual journey. Although ultimately the journey is a solitary one, there is real comfort in seeing the glow of another pilgrim’s candle, even if her journey is very different from one’s own, even if the other is traveling a different path. Knowing we are not alone means something to us.

Several years ago, I did the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius in the form of the 19th Annotation, which entailed a daily commitment for prayer and weekly meetings with my retreat director over a nine month period. There were about twenty other people doing the Exercises at the same time I was. Since we prayed in our own time and place and met individually with our directors, there were only three occasions during the entire nine months when we came together as a group – the beginning, around the halfway point and the end. But knowing that the other nineteen were doing the retreat with me mattered…particularly during the very difficult times (and there were some extremely difficult times). There was strength even in that “tiny light, so fragile.”

I think we all need to see the glow of another pilgrim candle as we walk our individual paths. And I am extremely grateful to those whose lights help brighten my way.

Becoming All We Can Be

I gave a mid-day reflection for students at our law school this past Wednesday on the theme: Become All We Can Be The focus of the reflection was on identifying those things that block us from receiving God’s love so that we can be all that we can be for the life of the world, the things that prevent us from acutalizing our full humanity.

You can find a podcast of the talk I gave here . (The podcast runs for 21:20). The handout I gave for their prayerful reflection during the time we were together, which I reference toward the end of the talk (the podcast ends at the point in our session where the participants spent some time in quiet reflection), along with another handout I distributed for their own subsequent individual prayer, can be found here and here.

World Day of Social Justice

Today the United Nations celebrates the first World Day of Social Justice, intended to become an annual event. The day offers all of us an opportunity to reflect on our role in promoting the social justice so necessary to secure a lasting peace. In the words of Pope Paul VI in Octogesiam Adveniens, “It is too easy to throw back on others responsibility for injustices, if at the same time one does not realize how each one shares in it personally, and how personal conversion is needed first.”

All of us who call ourselves Christians are called to share a transformation process with God – to be agents of social change. We can, by our individual actions, make a difference. We can contribute to peace and justice in the world. In the words of Dean Brackley: “Responding to massive injustice according to each one’s calling is the price of being human, and Christian, today. Those looking for a privatized spirituality to shelter them from a violent world have come to the wrong place.”

Today offers us an invitation to ask: how am I called to respond to injustice? How am I called to be an agent of social change?

Taking Up the Cross

Today’s and tomorrow’s Gospels confront the reality that both Christ’s mission and our own involves suffering. In today’s Gospel, Peter is quick to answer Jesus’ question, “who do you say that I am,” with the reply, “You are the Christ.” But he follows up that answer by rebuking Jesus’ suggestion that “the Son of Man must suffer greatly…and be killed, and rise after three days.”

Jesus raises the stakes even higher in the continuation of Mark we will hear tomorrow. Not only must the Son of Man suffer, but “whoever wishes to come after [Him] must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow [Him].” For only those who lose their lives for the sake of Jesus and the Gospel will save their lives.

One can only imagine the disciples’ reaction. It was one thing to follow Jesus while he went around healing and feeding people, calming the seas and preaching that the mighty would fall and the poor be lifted up. But taking up the cross and suffering must have sounded like quite another thing.

Yet, the invitation to the cross is one intended for all of us. Jesus asks us to follow His example out of love for Him, to give our whole life for God. That is not always easy and the temptations to do otherwise can be strong.

As I write this line, I look at the plaque on the wall near the door of my study that reads, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” and I pray for the grace and strength to follow His example.