40 days to a new you pt.1

Ever wish you had your own personal spiritual trainer? For Lent we offer you 40 of them, starting with the first 20 in Part I this month.


1. Henri J. M. Nouwen: An Ash Wednesday prayer
How often have I lived through these weeks without paying much attention to penance, fasting, and prayer? How often have I missed the spiritual fruits of the season without even being aware of it? But how can I ever really celebrate Easter without observing Lent? How can I rejoice fully in your Resurrection when I have avoided participating in your death?

Yes, Lord, I have to die--with you, through you, and in you--and thus become ready to recognize you when you appear to me in your Resurrection. There is so much in me that needs to die: false attachments, greed and anger, impatience and stinginess.... I see clearly now how little I have died with you, really gone your way and been faithful to it. O Lord, make this Lenten season different from the other ones. Let me find you again. Amen. (A Cry for Mercy: Prayers from the Genesee, Orbis)

Nouwen (1932--96) was a Dutch priest, writer, lecturer, spiritual guide, and leader at the L'Arche Daybreak Community for people with mental and physical disabilities.


2. Joyce Rupp: Focus on one thing only
Six months ago I lived the simple life of a pilgrim, walking 450 miles on the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. During those seven weeks all I did each day was walk toward St. James Cathedral in Santiago. I didn't have to hurry madly to get there, pit myself against the walking pace of other pilgrims, or worry if my clothes were fashionable. I had just one main thing to do: walk. It took 10 days before my distracted self finally "just walked." From then on, little else occupied my mind and heart. It was the most focused and free I have ever been.

Since returning home, I see how easy it is to succumb to the subtle cravings of my superficially-oriented culture. It seduces me to clutter up my life, dress in a certain way, be knowledgeable on every subject, scurry around as busily as everyone else, and work in a frenetic fashion. When I give in to these things I am thrown off balance. I lose my peace and sense of inner direction. I lack clarity in my spiritual goals, forget the truths preached by Jesus, and experience frustrating days of self-orientation.

Lent is a time to clear away the cultural debris that disorients me on the Christian path. The Lenten acts of deprivation I choose are of little value unless they help my mind and heart to be more attentive and focused on one thing only: to walk the gospel message--to love as Jesus loved. All else is secondary.

Rupp is a member of the Servants of Mary community and the award-winning author of numerous books.


3. Mother Teresa: Dying and rising
Lord, help us to see in your Crucifixion and Resurrection an example of how to endure and seemingly to die in the agony and conflict of daily life so that we may live more fully and creatively.

You accepted patiently and humbly the rebuffs of human life, as well as the tortures of your Crucifixion and Passion. Help us to accept the pains and conflicts that come to us each day as opportunities to grow as people and become more like you. Enable us to go through them patiently and bravely, trusting that you will support us. Make us realize that it is only by frequent deaths of ourselves and our self-centered desires that we can come to live more fully; for it is only by dying with you that we can rise with you. (A Gift for God: Prayers and Meditations, HarperSanFrancisco)

Mother Teresa (1910-97) founded the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta and was beatified last year.


4. Thomas Moore: Cleansing the soul
All religious traditions understand the need to prepare for a major spiritual moment by cleansing yourself of preoccupations, unconsciousness, self-centeredness, and distractions. The idea is not to become masochistic and punish yourself. Pleasure in self-denial sometimes sneaks into religious practice, but it only gives the illusion of being virtuous. The idea is to get ready for an intense participation in the great mysteries of Holy Week, which culminates in the ritual experience of death and rising.

Thinning out and simplifying a busy life helps create a focus on things that really matter at this time of year: reflection on suffering, deep Easter optimism, personal renewal, and hope. Today, in a time of world conflict and economic pressure, everyone knows how precious and elusive a genuine sense of hope can be.

You can also prepare your mind by reading intelligent books on the themes of Easter, rites of spring, and theology in general. You can nurture your spirituality by becoming more sophisticated about it, by keeping your religious education in step with secular developments. You can prepare your body through exercise and a simplified diet intended not just to lose weight but to gain spiritual substance. Most important, you can prepare your soul through service to those in need around you and through a renewal of relationships in general.

Lent should bring you to a point of spiritual intensity so that the Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter touches the mystery of your own existence.

Moore was a Catholic monk for 12 years and is the author of several bestselling books, including Care of the Soul (HarperCollins).


5. Jesus: Blessed Lent
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.

(Matt. 5:3-11)


6. Saint Teresa of Avila: Companion in the garden
This is the method of prayer I then used: Since I could not reflect discursively with the intellect, I strove to picture Christ within me, and it did me great good--in my opinion--to picture him in those scenes where I saw him more alone… The scene of his prayer in the garden, especially, was a comfort to me; I strove to be his companion there.

If I could, I thought of the sweat and agony he had undergone in that place. I desired to wipe away the sweat he so painfully experienced, but I recall that I never dared to actually do it, since my sins appeared to me so serious. I remained with him as long as my thoughts allowed me to, for there were many distractions that tormented me. Most nights for many years before going to bed, when I commended myself to God in preparation for sleep, I always pondered for a little while this episode of prayer in the garden. (Teresa of Avila: Mystical Writings, Crossroad)

Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-82) was the foundress of the Discalced Carmelites and one of the first women to be named a Doctor of the Church.


7. Kathleen Norris: A new/old slant on sin
For years I let the word sin slide by without fully engaging my consciousness, or my conscience. I thought of sin as a list of don'ts and should-have-dones, and if I hadn't committed (or omitted) certain acts, sin was not a problem. It was only when I encountered the wisdom of the early church, specifically the theology of sin that developed among desert monastics, that I gained an understanding of sin that is particularly useful to me during Lent.

The harsh conditions of desert life minimized worldly distractions, but the monks found their internal distractions magnified. And as they noted the disruptive emotions that assaulted them as they attempted to pray and contemplate scripture, they discerned eight "bad thoughts" that gradually evolved into what we know as the Seven Deadly Sins. These "thoughts" are not acts, but temptations that I, like every other human being, must contend with. There is no letting myself off the hook.

The psychology is ancient but sound; as I recognize a temptation to sloth or envy for what it is, as I haul it out of the depths into the light of day, I weaken it and allow for the possibility of transformation, or what Saint Benedict termed "conversion of life." This, it seems to me, is the basic work of the Christian: to admit to my most basic temptations to do evil, and resist them. And as I do so, I free the virtues to act on me. My sloth might convert into zeal, my envy into gratitude. This is the discipline--and the joy--of Lent.

Norris is a Protestant author who wrote about her experiences in a Catholic monastery in The Cloister Walk (Riverhead).


8. Pope John Paul II: Giving of yourself
"It is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35). What we have here is not simply a moral exhortation, or a command that comes to us from without. The inclination to give is rooted in the depths of the human heart: Every person is conscious of a desire to interact with others and everyone finds fulfillment in a free gift of self to others.

When believers respond to the inner impulse to give themselves to others without expecting anything in return, they experience a profound interior satisfaction.

The efforts of Christians to promote justice, their commitment in defense of the powerless, their humanitarian work in providing bread for the hungry, and their care for the sick by responding to every emergency and need draw their strength from that sole and inexhaustible treasure of love which is the complete gift of Jesus to the Father. (The pope's message for Lent 2003 will be posted online at http://www.vatican.va/phome_en.htm.)


9. Kathleen O. Chesto: Fasting from fast-ing
A story is told of a safari in the Serengeti. A researcher was rushing to the mating grounds of the African elephant. He had started late and pushed his porters relentlessly to arrive by mating season. On the fourth day, the porters sat down and refused to move. The translator explained they would go no farther until they had given their spirits time to catch up with them.

We live in a world where "fast" has a whole different meaning from its Lenten definition. We are a nation in a hurry. We drive 5 miles over the speed limit no matter what the speed limit is. Our rushing has created a whole new disease. Last year alone, road rage claimed over 1,500 victims.

This Lent, for at least one day, try fasting from "fast-ing," the rushing that drains so much more than it accomplishes. Try driving the speed limit and using the extra minutes on the drive to work to get in touch with God. Instead of beeping the horn, say a prayer for the people who cut you off on the road. Instead of getting annoyed with the slow cashier and changing lines, try greeting that person with a gentle smile. Fast from fast food. Eat a good meal with family or friends, and take time to enjoy each taste and each person. You won't lose weight, but your burdens may feel lighter. You might even find your spirit will catch up with you!

Chesto is author of Know Me, Hold Me, Sing to Me: What My Grandchild Taught Me about God (Sorin Books).


10. Saint Francis de Sales: Divine solitude
Always remember to retire at various times into the solitude of your own heart even while outwardly engaged in discussions or transactions with others. This mental solitude cannot be violated by the many people who surround you, since they are not standing around your heart but only around your body. Your heart remains alone in the presence of God.

Such was the exercise King David practiced amid his many occupations, and he testifies to it countless times in the psalms, as when he says, "O Lord, I am always with you"; "I see the Lord always before me"; "I have lifted my eyes to you, O my God, who dwells in heaven"; "My eyes are ever toward God." Indeed, our tasks are seldom so important as to keep us from withdrawing our hearts from them from time to time in order to retire into this divine solitude. (Introduction to the Devout Life, Doubleday)

Saint Francis de Sales (1567-1622) was bishop of Geneva and one of the originators of lay spirituality.


11. M. Scott Peck: Communal confession
Community requires the confession of brokenness. But how remarkable it is that in our culture brokenness must be "confessed." We think of confession as an act that should be carried out in secret, in the darkness of the confessional, with the guarantee of professional priestly or psychiatric confidentiality. Yet the reality is that every human being is broken and vulnerable.

How strange that we should ordinarily feel compelled to hide our wounds when we are all wounded! Community requires the ability to expose our wounds and weaknesses to our fellow creatures. It also requires the ability to be affected by the wounds of others. But even more important is the love that arises among us when we share, both ways, our woundedness. (The Different Drum, Touchstone)

Peck is a psychiatrist and the author of The Road Less Travelled (Simon and Schuster).


12. Edith Stein (Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, O.C.D.): Thy will be done
"Thy will be done," in its full extent, must be the guideline for the Christian life. It must regulate the day from morning to evening, the course of the year and the entire life. Only then will it be the sole concern of the Christian. All other concerns the Lord takes over. This one alone, however, remains ours as long as we live … And, sooner or later, we begin to realize this.

In the childhood of the spiritual life, when we have just begun to allow ourselves to be directed by God, we feel his guiding hand quite firmly and surely. But it doesn't always stay that way. Whoever belongs to Christ must go the whole way with him. He must mature to adulthood: He must one day or other walk the way of the cross to Gethsemane and Golgotha. (Edith Stein: Essential Writings, Orbis)

Stein (1891-1942), a Jewish convert who became a Discalced Carmelite nun, was arrested by the Nazis and died in Auschwitz.


13. Dorothy Day: Works of Mercy
We do what we can, and the whole field of all the Works of Mercy is open to us. There is a saying, "Do what you are doing." If you are a student, study, prepare, in order to give to others, and keep alive in yourself the vision of a new social order. All work, whether building, increasing food production, running credit unions, working in factories which produce for true human needs, working the smallest of industries, the handicrafts--all these things can come under the heading of the Works of Mercy, which are the opposite of the works of war.

It is a penance to work, to give oneself to others, to endure the pinpricks of community living. One would certainly say on many occasions: Give me a good, thorough, frank, outgoing war, rather than the sneak attacks, stabs in the back, sparring, detracting, defaming, hand-to-hand jockeying for position that go on in offices and "good works" of all kinds, another and miserably petty kind of war. Saint Paul said that he "died daily." This too is penance, to be taken cheerfully, joyfully… So let us rejoice in our own petty sufferings and thank God we have a little penance to offer, in this holy season. (By Little and By Little: The Selected Writings of Dorothy Day, Knopf)

Day (1897-1980) co-founded the Catholic Worker movement.


14. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Discipleship and death
Whoever enters discipleship enters Jesus' death, and puts his or her own life into death; this has been so from the beginning. The cross is not the horrible end of a pious, happy life, but stands rather at the beginning of community with Jesus Christ. Every call of Christ leads to death. Whether with the first disciples we leave home and occupation in order to follow him, or whether with Luther we leave the monastery to enter a secular profession, in either case the one death awaits us, namely death in Jesus Christ, the dying away of our old form of being human in Jesus' call.

Those who are not prepared to take up the cross, those who are not prepared to give their life to suffering and rejection by others, lose community with Christ and are not disciples. Discipleship is commitment to the suffering Christ. (quoted in Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter, Plough)

Bonhoeffer (1906-45) was a German Lutheran pastor and theologian who was martyred by the Nazis.


15. Frederica Mathewes-Green: Asking and giving forgiveness
One evening recently the members of my parish formed a big circle inside the church. The ends of the circle overlapped and my husband, the priest, faced a subdeacon. He bowed to touch the floor, then said, "Please forgive me, my brother, for any way I have sinned against you." Greg responded, "I forgive you," then bowed and asked forgiveness in turn. When my husband gave it, the two embraced, then each moved on to the next person in line.

As the circle advanced, every person had a turn to stand face to face with every other person, asking and giving forgiveness. Joy mingled with tears. A woman I'd quarreled with opened her arms wide and said with a smile, "C'mere. This is going to take awhile."

We do this every year at the beginning of Lent, just as Orthodox Christians do all over the world. But when I described it to a non-Orthodox friend she wondered how we could give forgiveness without discussion and negotiation. The other person might hurt you again. You might even suspect their repentance is phony.

How can you give forgiveness? By remembering how much God has to forgive you. It's that simple. Forgiveness is never what a person deserves--if we got what we deserved, it wouldn't be forgiveness. When we forgive, we give a costly gift, just as God gives us, and we can't control whether the other person will use that gift well or badly. But we can refuse to go on being chained to their past behavior through bonds of anger and judgment. Anger is an acid that destroys its container. We give forgiveness every year because we need to do that to stay healthy. We ask for forgiveness, because we need that even more.

Mathewes-Green is an Eastern Orthodox writer.


16. Jessica Powers: Repairer of fences
I am alone in the dark, and I am thinking

what darkness would be mine if I could see

the ruin I wrought in every place I wandered

and if I could not be

aware of One who follows after me.

Whom do I love, O God, when I love Thee?

The great Undoer who has torn apart

the walls I built against a human heart,

the Mender who has sewn together the hedges

through which I broke when I went seeking ill,

the Love who follows and forgives me still.

Fumbler and fool that I am, with things around me

Of fragile make like souls, how I am blessed

To hear behind me footsteps of a Savior!

I sing to the east; I sing to the west:

God is my repairer of fences, turning my paths into rest.

(A Retreat with Jessica Powers: Loving a Passionate God, St. Anthony Messenger Press)

Powers (1905-88) was a Carmelite nun and a poet in Wisconsin.


17. Thomas Kempis: Silence and solitude
Set aside an opportune time for deep personal reflection, and think often about God's many benefits to you. Give up all light and frivolous matters, and read what inspires you to repentance of soul and not just what entertains the mind.

If you abstain from unnecessary conversation and useless visiting, as well as from listening to idle news and gossip, you will find sufficient and suitable time for your meditations. The great saints avoided the company of men as much as they could, because they wanted to live for God in silence. (The Imitation of Christ, Vantage)

Thomas Kempis (1380-1471) was a priest whose writings stressed personal piety and the inner life.


18. Mohandas Gandhi: Fasting and the voice of God
Fasting for the sake of unfoldment of the spirit is a discipline I hold to be absolutely necessary at some stage or other in the evolution of an individual. Crucifixion of the flesh is a meaningless term unless one goes voluntarily through the pangs of hunger. For one thing, identification with the starving poor is a meaningless term without the experience behind it....

Fasting should be inspired by perfect truth and perfect nonviolence. The call for it should come from within, and it should be imitative. It should never be undertaken for a selfish purpose but for the benefit of others only. A fast is out of the question in a case where there is hatred for anybody.

But what is the inner voice? Is everybody capable of hearing it? These are big questions. The inner voice is there in every one of us, but one whose ears are not open for it cannot hear it, just as a deaf person is unable to hear the sweetest of songs. Self-restraint is essential in order to make our ears fit to hear the voice of God. (Mohandas Gandhi: Essential Writings, Orbis)

Gandhi (1869-1948), a Hindu, popularized the use of religious nonviolence for political change as a leader for Indian independence.


19. Edwina Gateley: Contemplative prayer
When I was a small girl, I was fascinated by all things religious and holy. God, obviously, fitted squarely into that category. God lived (so they told me) in our huge, greystone cathedral, and there, indeed, he was to be found--hiding in a gold box surrounded by flowers, candles, and velvet curtains. I spent hours in the silence and the darkness of the huge cathedral--often all alone--just sitting, breathing, awed by a deep, intuitive awareness that I sat with God.

Little did I know, at such a tender age, that I was engaged in contemplative prayer. I was simply absorbed by a sense of divine presence. It has never really gone away. As I grew older, however, life became busy and demanding. I went to college, then to Africa as a lay missionary teacher, and later founded the Volunteer Missionary Movement. I didn't really have the time to sit in dark and holy places, wide-eyed by mystery. I was very busy about the business of saving the world.

But I didn't save the world. That has already been done. I am in a sense--like everyone else--trying to save myself, to become fully myself for God. My journey is coming full circle. Older, wiser, and deeper than in those earlier years when I sat in the cathedral, I now sit again, not in my cathedral but in myself. I "sit" wherever I find myself, for my cathedral is within me.

I know now that no matter how far we travel, how much we accomplish, how deeply we suffer, or how joyfully we dance, God is always with us in all of those things for the whole of our life's journey. That dark, silent, and mysterious place stays with us, housing the holy. Like the Lenten experience, there are no extra props. There is just the darkness and the emptiness and, at the very heart of all that the divine presence, the Holy One whom we seek, breathing, hidden within us, eternally loving and waiting.

Gateley is the founder of the Volunteer Missionary Movement.


20. Fyodor M. Dostoevsky: Choose to love
Christ said, "Go and give all you have to the poor and become the servant of all," for if you do that, you'll become a thousand times richer because your happiness won't be made just of good food, rich clothes, satisfied vanity, and appeased envy. Instead it will be built on love, love multiplied by love without end. And then you will gain not just riches, but the whole world!

Today we amass material things without ever satisfying our greed, and then we madly squander all we have amassed. But a day will come when there will be no orphans, no beggars; everyone will be as one of my own family, everyone will be my brother or sister, and that is when I will have gained everything and everyone!

Will we choose to love, or not? (The Adolescent, W.W. Norton)

Dostoevsky (1821 -1881) was the Russian author of The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment. This article appeared in the February 2004 (Volume 69; Number 2: Pages 12-17) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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