Staying Awake During Lent

Palms and a wooden cross, with the text "Lent 2023"

The liturgical season of Lent begins next week. In the Catholic Church, Lent consists of forty days stretching from Ash Wednesday to Holy Thursday (the start of the Triduum, which culminates in Easter Sunday). This season is based on the forty days that Jesus spent fasting and praying in the desert, preparing for the start of his ministry.

Lent calls us to remember that life is short, and now is the time to focus on our spiritual life. In the busyness of life, we may have become distracted from what truly matters to us. But being told, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” on Ash Wednesday can be a compelling call to action if we are paying attention and not just living through another dreary, cold February on autopilot.

During Lent, the focus is on sacrifice, prayer, and giving. Practices around fasting and sacrifice (“giving something up for Lent”) are a common way to mark this season, but as I get older, I find it’s more beneficial to my spiritual life to add something.

The practice of “giving something up” can easily turn into a diet or self-improvement project that doesn’t have anything to do with my relationship with God. It’s more helpful for me to think about Lent as an opportunity to grow my relationship with God in some way and use this time to experiment with changes and habits that will further that process. If you’ve never taken this approach to Lent, try it this year and see how it works.

During Lent, we hear gospel readings that encompass the ministry of Jesus. Within these readings are many lessons about what good discipleship (i.e., relationship with God) entails.

In the gospels of Mark and Matthew, the ministry of Jesus begins with a call to repentance (Mk 1:14-15, Mt 4:17). The word “repent” is a problematic word for me, with negative, punitive overtones. So I researched to determine if these overtones are what scripture intends to imply with this term. I discovered most biblical translations use the word “repentance” for the earlier Greek term “metanoia.” According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, metanoia means a transformative change of heart or spiritual conversion. Pope Benedict XVI highlighted the subtle distinction between metanoia and repentance. He said that although metanoia suggests repentance and atonement, “conversion” and “reformation” come closer to its meaning.

I appreciate that “metanoia” is a new word for me, and the idea of transformative change and conversion feels inspiring. Internal change also dovetails nicely with the change of season that occurs during Lent. In New England, our season changes dramatically from winter to spring during this time. So the theme of transformative change echoes what I’ll be experiencing in my outside world.

Approaching Lent as a journey also seems important. Implementing transformative change is inevitably a process, likely one that will (hopefully) last beyond this season of Lent.

Henri Nouwen (in his book Lent and Easter Wisdom) offers his perspective on viewing Lent as a journey. He explains, “The Lenten journey is also a process of spiritual growth and, as such, presumes movement from one state of being to another state. For example, some people may find themselves troubled and anxious at the beginning of Lent as a result of a life choice or an unanswered question, and, at the end of Lent, they may fully expect a sense of conversion, a sense of peace, or perhaps simply understanding and acceptance. Therefore, Lent is a movement from one point of view to another or, perhaps, from one interpretation of life to a different interpretation.”

The transformative journey I’ll pursue during Lent focuses on being more attentive – staying fully awake to what is actually happening. I’m inspired by the frequent admonition in the Bible to stay awake and to pay attention. In the New Testament, the phrase “stay awake” is used in 18 verses! So this seems to be an important aspect of good discipleship.

Richard Rohr (in his book Jesus’ Alternative Plan) reminds us, “Spirituality is about being ready. All the spiritual disciplines of our lives – prayer, study, meditation or ritual, religious vows – are there so we can break through to the eternal. Spirituality is about awakening the eyes, the ear, and the heart so we can see what’s always been happening right in front of us.”

My emphasis is on finding ways to stay awake with my eyes, ears, and heart to build more attentiveness into my daily life. I want to be more aware of the presence of God in my everyday life and attentive to living a life that is consistent with who my true, authentic self is.

During the next seven weeks, my posts will focus on different aspects of “staying awake.” Each week I’ll provide a reflection and some questions that you can use during the week to explore how the topic relates to your life and your spiritual journey.


A Closing Prayer

God, I feel a sense of hope as Lent approaches this year. I trust that this hope comes from You and is Your way of calling me to transformative change. I hope to use the season of Lent to deepen my relationship with You, which I believe is Your great desire. Encourage this seed of hope and let it grow into the resolution I need to follow through on this intention.

Help guide me through my anticipated journey of metanoia. As I focus on better staying awake to Your presence in my life, give me the insight and resources I require to make these practices a permanent part of my life.

Amen.

5 comments

  1. thanks for getting us started on our Lenten journey Cathy!

    I have been thinking about the gospel reading from week-ago Tuesday (Mark 7:1-13) where Jesus was displeased and exasperated by the scribes and pharisees and quoted Isaiah to them “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me”. While I like to think I’m not especially Pharisee-like, I do think my heart is not always so close to Jesus. This Lent I’m going to ask for the grace to bring my heart constantly closer to Jesus…. and in the process grow my friendship with Him.

    Like

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