Ten ways to put new life into Lent

These Lenten practices can help your spirituality to blossom this year.

Have you lost track of Lent in recent years? Has it lost substance and grit? Here are a few ideas you might consider to help you get more traction along your spiritual path.

1. Become a more knowledgeable Catholic.
Many Catholics wish they knew more about their faith. Do something about that. Go to the Internet, listen to tapes, read your parish bulletin or a good book. A great start would be Alice Camille's wonderful new Invitation to Catholicism (ACTA Publications).

2. Let go of one vice.
I knew a wise man years ago, Ed Pugh, who had a theory that you could transform your whole self if you simply picked one vice in your life, traced it to its core, and released it. I've come to see the wisdom in his belief that all our vices and virtues are woven together. Improve one, everything improves. 

3. Adopt one virtue.
Saint Thomas Aquinas taught that simply having the inclination to virtue did us no good unless we acted virtuously. Use it or lose it. If you want to be courageous, act with courage. If you want to develop patience, practice patience. If you want to be generous, make a habit of generosity. What you feed, grows. Put energy and focus into the practice of a virtue this Lent, and it will be with you the rest of your life.

4. Make room for Jesus.
For Christians, the essence of holiness is a relationship with Jesus. It may feel awkward, but practice sitting with an open heart before Jesus. "I am with you all days," said Jesus. Take that message to heart.

5. Get to really know one person who is really poor.
The world looks very different when you're down and out. So much of American life is geared to the acquiring of more and more stuff, we barely notice the ones who have dropped out of the rat race. If you look around, you will soon find the opportunity to have a conversation with a person who is poor. Do so.

6. Sponsor a student.
Stop and think of all the advantages you enjoyed growing up. Rather than thinking of the people above you on the ladder of advantage, think of the millions and millions below you. You can make an enormous difference in the life of a young person, and that good will radiate out throughout all of his or her life. Help a child get through school. Call a local principal or pastor to name one promising student who needs scholarship money. Father Bruce Wellems, C.M.F. works with kids in one of Chicago's most difficult neighborhoods. His scholarship fund works miracles, and the money all goes to deserving candidates. (Contact: Holy Cross Parish, 4557 S. Wood, Chicago, IL 60609.)

7. Thank people who deserve it.
It's easy to live in fear. To counter that worldview, develop an attitude of gratitude. Cultivate the habit of looking for opportunities to thank others. You won't have to look far: maintenance people who clean your workplace, garbage collectors who haul your trash away, the neighbor who uses his snowblower to clear the whole block, the mechanic who fixes your car. There are people who meet at city hall to wrestle with thorny problems, and others meeting up at your parish hall to find creative ways to keep the parish running. In person or in writing, thank someone every day this Lent.

8. Help a refugee.
I found myself complaining last week when I was stuck in an airport for half a day. Then I thought of the millions of Afghan men, women, and children who have no homes. No one of us can help them all. But each of us can and must do something. Catholic Relief Services (209 W. Fayette Street, Baltimore, MD 21201-3443; http://www.catholicrelief.org/) is often the first on the spot to clean up the "collateral damage" caused by war, famine, and natural disaster. Forgo an occasional grande latte and feed a family who can't go home tonight.

9. Realize that life is hard.
I occasionally find myself saying, "Life isn't supposed to be this way." Who says? It's simplistic to think that life ought to be easy, that we deserve a break today and every day. This point of realizing that life is hard is not to punish ourselves or load on the guilt. The point is to take life on life's terms, not a fantasy version of it. If we can sit and know that life is hard, we also make room for the truth that life is also exquisitely sweet. Both are true.

Which leads me into my final suggestion for Lent and for the whole year round:

10. Pursue mystery rather than mastery.
Life can seem like a cosmic game of dodge ball, with the universe whipping curve balls at us all day long. There's a tendency to grasp control of what we can. The invitation at the heart of our faith is to be a vine grafted to Jesus, our conduit to God. Above all else, let go and let God's life flow!

Tom McGrath is contributing editor of U.S. Catholic magazine. This article appeared in the February 2002 (Volume 67, Number 2) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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