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Ash Wednesday has arrived! Here's one way to enter into Lent.
(Note: This approach focuses on the individual. For resources that reflect on social sin, check Call to Action, FutureChurch, or Ignatian Spirituality.)
First: See Lent as an opportunity
Lent can sometimes seem like one more thing on a very long to-do list. Instead, shift your perspective; see Lent as an intoxicating opportunity to go deep with our loving God. To cultivate intimacy or renew our love affair. To investigate the roots of our hurtful behavior in the light of God's mercy. To examine those parts of ourselves that are wounded or broken and in need of healing. To take responsibility and apologize to God and others for mistakes we have made. Lent offers us the time and space to be transformed by the Spirit, if we are willing to take it.
Second: Take time to reflect
To make the most of your opportunity with God, put a little thought and prayer into planning it. Between now (Ash Wednesday) and Sunday (the First Sunday of Lent), take 30 or 40 minutes to pray and journal on the following questions:
Third: Determine your spiritual practices
Once you pray on the above questions, select spiritual practices that make sense according to your answers. Consider the traditional Lenten observances of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. For example, say you are a person of financial means but you have a shopping habit that you know in your heart is out of balance. You might decide to fast from shopping, but instead of doing it as an act of willpower that you will eagerly abandon as soon as Lent is over, you might fast from shopping as prayer for God to transform this behavior. You might write down during the day every time you have the urge to shop, and then for 15 minutes each night before bed you might review your day and pray about the root of this behavior, what pay off it gives you, and how you can meet your needs in healthier ways. You might donate the money you would have spent shopping over the 40 days to local nonprofits that serve the very poorest people in your community.
Or another example: say there is someone in your family with whom you have a strained relationship and you cannot help but behave in ways that make you feel small. This constant dynamic in your life is interfering with your relationship with God and certainly with yourself and probably with your whole family. For Lent, you might decide to invite this person to serve weekly with you at a soup kitchen, and approach this service together as prayer to God for a breakthrough in your relationship. You might spend 10 minutes a day praying the rosary for this person and their needs, asking to see things from their perspective rather than focusing on how you want them to change. You might fast from a particular negative behavior or tactic you use when interacting with them, and pray for guidance about how to interact instead.
Design your Lenten observance with creativity. The key is to choose spiritual practices that invite you to look honestly at yourself in the light of God's mercy, and at what is blocking you from fully embodying God's love in the world.
Four: Make a commitment
Once you have a sense of which spiritual practices will be lifegiving and transformative for you, determine how much time you can devote to them. Be specific: how much time and on which days will you practice? Spell it out so that you can hold yourself accountable. One note of caution: be realistic. On the one hand, Lent is meant to elicit more effort and sacrifice and devotion than a typical day. On the other hand, don't overburden yourself to the point that you are tempted to quit. Be generous but reasonable in carving out time for your spiritual practice. Once you have a sense of how you will observe Lent, return to prayer for 20 minutes to offer your intentions up to God.
Five: Live your commitment
With your intentions set, now you just need to honor them: do what you said you would do. If you find you need to adapt your spiritual practice as Lent unfolds, simply bring your desires to your prayer and adjust your practice in the light of the Holy Spirit. Remember to pray for the graces you need, and remember to thank God for the ways you see God moving in your life--especially in relation to any specific petitions you are asking God to answer. Last but not least, follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit along the way!