Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Getting Ready for Lent

Dear Theophilous,

Special events have a habit of sneaking up on us. There never seems to be enough time to get ready for the dinner party we’re throwing Saturday evening. As a guy, Valentine’s Day (the secular version) is my annual downfall. There’s also the quintessential Advent question: “Are you ready for Christmas?”

The panic that surges as these events approach is usually the result of a lack of foresight and preparedness. And each time I’m in the frenzied thick of getting things done last minute, I promise myself that next time will be different.

Every year, Lent has a way of sneaking up on me as well.

Maybe it’s because Easter is a moveable feast (and thus Ash Wednesday and Lent are never the same date). Perhaps it’s because life is hectic this time of year with the transition of semesters at school. It could be that the dark doldrums of winter have me thinking of far-off places and not the liturgical seasons.

I wake up one morning and realize it’s Ash Wednesday and that Lent has begun. My mind races with questions such as What to give up? Or How to fast with a fridge full of food? And most importantly, How will my life be different this Lent from years gone by? I’ve found through the years that my rocky start to Lent has my efforts sputter out long before Holy Week.

With Lent 2016 only 2 weeks away (or closer, depending on when you read this), I’ve begun to prepare myself for this penitential season, and I’m sharing them here in the hopes that you will avoid the pitfall of not being prepared and then chastising yourself for a Lent unfulfilled.

Meditating on my Lenten Sacrifice

Lent is a time of penitential sacrifice when we traditionally give something up for the 40 days before Easter. Like many, I don’t usually give this any thought until Ash Wednesday. I end up scrambling to think of a suitable sacrifice, trying to steer clear of usual’s such as chips, chocolate or alcohol. The whole point of our Lenten sacrifice is to better ourselves (so I tell my students that giving up homework is not a valid choice); it has to be sacrificial; it has to hurt. I’m just beginning to think of my sacrifice for this year, and traditionally, it’s not something I share with others – the Father knows.

Preparing the Fast

My waistline is proof that I love cold turkey. That said, I hate going cold turkey. Traditionally we are called to fast throughout Lent (1 main meal and 2 small meals a day – no snacking), with more concerted fasts on Wednesdays and Fridays; complete fasts on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday; plus the abstention from meat on all Friday’s during Lent. I need to work up to lowering my calorie intake. I also know my weaknesses when it comes to fasting (I’m never more hungry than when I’m purposefully fasting). The hardest part of the fast for me is avoiding temptation, so there will be a concerted effort over the next couple of weeks to empty the cupboards, keeping on hand only what is necessary. It’s no wonder that the day before Lent begins is Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) – it’s a gluttonous affair to clear the larder.

Clearing the Calendar

Lent isn’t meant to be easy. It involves self-sacrifice as we meditate on the sacrifice of our Lord on the Cross. Thankfully Lent is not a season we are meant to go through alone. Knowing that we need help on our journey, many parishes offer different events to help focus our attention on Christ; join our suffering to His; and take comfort in the company of our fellow Christians. Check your parish bulletin or website for the dates and times for Stations of the Cross, Eucharistic Adoration and Poverty Meals. These are all great ways to sustain your efforts through the 40 days of Lent, so make room for them on your calendar now before other things come up and you get to Easter wishing you had set the time aside.

Throughout your Lenten journey, dear Theophilous, remember that you are not alone. Remember that Christ walks with you always. When the road seems hard, think of the path to Calvary. Know that I am praying for you, and I humbly ask for your prayers in return.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Planting Faith like Acorns

Dear Theophilous,

Some where during my French literature studies (either in high school or university), I was introduced to the short story L’homme qui plantait des arbres (The Man Who Planted Trees) by Jean Giono. For whatever reason, this story has stuck with me over the years, while so many others seem to have come and gone through my memory.

The story is of a young man who finds himself in the company of an old shepherd in an isolated corner of the southern French Alps. Suffering from years of drought, the local industry has dried up and the village has been deserted save for this one lonely figure and his flock. As he tends his sheep each day on the barren hillside, the shepherd plants a few acorns – only so many as he can carry in his pocket. Over the decades the acorns grow into saplings, and the saplings into a forest that brings life back to this hidden valley. As creation reclaims the barren wilderness, so too people return to the village, bringing life and laughter back to where there was once only the mournful whistling of the wind through the ruins.

This beautiful tale of life reclaiming death has followed me throughout the years. Recently, however, I have found my perspective of the story changing. Where I once identified with the young man hiking in the mountains; more and more I see myself as the old shepherd and this tale as an allegory for evangelization.

It’s no secret that those of us living in North America seem to be living in a desolate landscape when it comes to love of God. St. John Paul the Great even went so far as to describe western culture as a Culture of Death. Many who decry the world we live in would like to change it overnight – instantaneously creating a Culture of Life out of this Culture of Death by waving some magic wand. What we need, however, is the wisdom of the man who planted trees.

To bring life back to his hidden valley, the old shepherd did not bring in a a forest of mature trees to be planted. Nor did he pay the moving expenses for the 10,000 people to be relocated back to the village. Instead he planted a pocketful of acorns, day in and day out. The old shepherd knew he could not bring life back tot eh valley tomorrow, but he did have the foresight to know that if he slowly changed the landscape back from its barrenness, life would return on its own.

I am finding more often that I need to take this approach with my evangelization efforts. There is no way that on my own I can re-orient the world towards God overnight, but I can plant the seeds that will bring the Culture of Life back to this barren wilderness. Each day I search to plant one acorn in the soul of one person that I come into contact with. Over time, I pray, I hope this acorn of hope will grow over the decades into a mighty tree of faith. If even half of the acorns planted grow to maturity, a great forest of faith will begin to cover the landscape.

As this forest of faith grows and offers shady protection, life will eventually come back to the barren world we live in now.