Lenten ideas to purify the soul and change the heart
By Connie Cissell
If you are like most people, you have just gotten over the celebration of Christmas and the feast of the Epiphany. Before you get too used to ordinary time, however, here’s a reminder: Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 6 this year.
There are many, many ways to have a meaningful Lenten experience and they don’t all have to do with giving up chocolate cake. The key is to have a heart-changing, mind-opening conversion experience that lasts a lifetime, not just the 40 days of Lent. Jesus’ desert experience was a little more powerful than cutting down how many hours of television a family watches — although these days a sacrifice such as that may be just what is needed to free a cluttered mind.
With today’s information highways, a computer with Internet access can bring a wealth of ideas for Lent right into your home. There are Web sites dedicated to Christian Catholic parenting where ideas for family projects abound. There are sites specifically geared to Lenten recipes. There are also Web sites such as the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops, www.usccb.org or on the state level, www.nyscatholicconference.org where you can research issues that can lead to a more fulfilling Lenten experience.
Cindy Falise is the diocesan interim director of Catholic Charities and she has some powerful ideas about how to spend the church’s season of reflection, repentance and spiritual rejuvenation.
“Instead of taking away something, we can try to give something back this Lent,” Falise said. She recommends studying the Beatitudes and then taking action to put the biblical teaching into practice.
The corporal works of mercy are a fine place to begin, Falise said.
“You can take a teaching like ‘feed the hungry’ and employ four steps to really consider what that means,” she said.
First, Falise said, educate yourself by doing some research on poverty. You can look at www.povertyusa.org or www.catholiccharitiesusa.org and find out the enormity of the problem, or you can fine tune your television viewing and listen closely when the news reports on such issues or you can even choose articles that are devoted to the issue while you’re waiting in the dentist’s office.
The next step is pastoral. Call the rectory at your parish and find out how to volunteer at the food pantry. All the pantries are in continuous need of food items, Falise said. “And when you donate food, don’t donate the things you don’t want out of your own pantry. Try donating what you might put together for your own dinner, and then have soup yourself for dinner,” she advised.
Lenten observers can also volunteer at any of their local soup kitchens or other feeding programs. Then, Falise said, they can take action by joining the electronic lobby system at the New York State Catholic Conference website listed above. In other words, find out how you can influence policies that help feed the hungry in the U.S. and abroad. And, perhaps most importantly, Falise said, pray. Pray privately, with your family, at Mass, in the car, wherever you usually pray, asking God to help you serve and assist you as you attempt to make a difference in the lives of those who go to bed hungry.
“We’re the richest country in the world. We shouldn’t have hungry children or homeless people,’ Falise said.
Sheltering the homeless is another area that could prove to be a heart-expanding experience. Falise suggests donating to or volunteering with Southern Comfort, a group organized by Norm Andrzewski out of St. Joseph the Worker Parish in Liverpool. They routinely make trips to New Orleans and other Hurricane Katrina-ravaged locations to help the people rebuild and get their lives back on track. Unity Acres in Orwell within the Syracuse Diocese is a place for homeless men which follows Catholic Worker ideals regarding hospitality and respect for all of God’s people. The organization could always use an extra set of hands, someone willing to transport the men to appointments, some fresh vegetables and clean sheets, as well as men’s toiletry items and the ever-brewing coffee the men enjoy daily.
While you are engaging in pastoral care of others, remember, though, to find out the reasons why there are homeless people in the first place. Many suffer from a mental illness, many are veterans who served and now need help, many have lost their jobs and are illiterate and don’t hold much hope for gaining new employment. There are innumerable reasons why people are marginalized and maybe far fewer reasons why they become the least of our worries.
Along with taking action, Lent also lends itself to deep spiritual contemplation and reverence for our Catholic faith and all its tradition. So along with physically being present for corporal works of mercy, we also need to place ourselves in God’s presence and do some housecleaning within our own souls. That’s where places like Stella Maris Retreat Center and Christ the King Retreat and Conference Center can assist us.
Sister Rose Raymond Wagner, OSF, program director at Stella Maris, describes Lent as a time to refocus on our relationship with God.
“What practices help us to do that? Maybe it’s giving more time each day to prayer, reflective reading, outreach to others, fasting,” Sister Rose Raymond said. “It’s good to remember that God looks not at what we do but why. If our fasting creates an empty space for God to fill, then it becomes a profitable discipline and can result in that ‘new heart’ that both God and we desire.”
As adults try to create a meaningful Lenten season, religious educators are working to bring about the most positive, teachable Lent possible for their youngsters.
At St. Anne, Mother of Mary Church in Mexico dual Directors of Religious Education Linda Buckley and Pat Barnett have more than 20 years of experience in guiding young Catholics through church seasons. Buckley is in charge of grades six through 12 and coordinates the RCIA program as well as the confirmation program and liturgy at the parish.
“We study Matthew chapters 5 and 13 and we try to add activities to go along with the Scriptures,” Buckley explained. For instance, classes will be making pretzels this year noting the symbolic nature of the shape and the three empty spaces representing the trinity. “We’ll send background information home with them so that they can make them with their parents, too,” Buckley said.
Classes also celebrate Mardi Gras during the last class before Ash Wednesday, Buckley explained. “We have a party with beads, games and music and then we wind it down and explain why you have a party as a precursor to Ash Wednesday,” she said.
When it comes to resources, there are Web sites that Buckley visits and on-line newsletters she receives that provide much information and food for thought while she is coming up with lesson plans. Buckley said to get parents thinking, religious educators send home “the question of the week” derived from the Gospels so that families can discuss Scripture at home.
Jeanie Roberts is religious education coordinator for grades one through five at St. Augustine Parish in Baldwinsville. She relies on Operation Rice Bowl, a program through Catholic Relief Services, to provide one aspect of Lenten service. While students are saving money each week by giving up something, Roberts is sure to explain how fortunate youngsters in the U.S. are compared to other countries. She uses the Purple Book, a resource for religious educators. “There are Scripture readings plus activities to help them have a more prayerful experience during Lent,” Roberts said.
One of the significant activities for her parish’s students is to tie in projects that are discussed at Mass and throughout other parish programs so that students see the seamless connection for all the parish family.
“A couple of years ago we asked that the Lent collection be used for Hurricane Katrina victims instead of the Rice Bowl project,” Roberts said. “They made a strong connection because they knew the money was going to be used to support faith formation programs there.”
This year Roberts hopes to bring the migrant workers of the Baldwinsville community into focus as the students are learning to give this Lent. “Our parish has adopted the migrant workers and they hear them talked about during Mass and they attend our summer picnic with their families so the kids know about them,” Roberts said. “So when they pass up a candy bar at the store and bring the money to church, they will know they are giving it to help the migrant workers.”
Fasting, praying, sacrificing, educating and living out the Beatitudes can all lend themselves to a heart-changing experience this Lent. Resources are at our fingertips so there really is no reason not to try to meet God.