Lent can be an epic adventure
By Jake Geis
Our culture loves epic stories. The success of “The Lord of the Rings” and the “Star Wars” series exhibits how we gravitate towards characters from humble backgrounds who overcome serious challenges to triumph over evil. Something within them speaks to the deepest caverns of our heart, that inside each of us is the capability to be Frodo Baggins or Luke Skywalker if given the chance.
There’s a reason for this still voice calling to our souls. It’s there to tell you that you can overcome great obstacles, create immense changes and overcome evil. In short, you can be epic.
But it’s not quite the same as the path taken by these fictional characters. In many ways, it can be more difficult as you toil not on a battlefield, but in quiet, against powers darker than Sith lords. It’s because we are truly engaged in a life or death struggle every single day for the salvation or damnation of our souls, and the souls of every other human on earth.
“Sure,” some might scoff, “Let’s make a mountain out of a molehill! I’m not that important in the events of this world.”
Let me offer one example as a counter argument.
A time for training
Do you have a pair of friends or acquaintances who hate each other? Whatever the cause of the dispute, you can vividly see both sides of the story. You can see how their antagonism poisons their families, neighbors and yourself, destroying what is beautiful about human relationships.
If just one of those two denied their passions and embraced Christ’s message of radical forgiveness, what changes would happen?
In this example, we can see how each person can identify where they have been hurt. But it takes self-discipline to see beyond the hurt and respond in love. How can we train ourselves to respond like this? We need a conditioning program in which we learn to control our desires so they aren’t controlling us.
The Church recognizes the fickleness of the human condition. Wisely, she ordained under Christ’s directive a time for us to step back and recognize how we tend to slip into self-centeredness. We are in the middle of that season, the season of Lent. But how does not eating meat on Fridays help us forgive others?
A metaphor is found in athletics. Football players don’t get good at game-winning touchdowns by practicing game-winning touchdowns; those situations are too infrequent to become proficient. Rather, players condition their bodies through intense exercise. This gives them the edge when they need that extra boost to make the big play.
Similarly, in our lenten fasts we teach ourselves to say “no” to our natural desires so we can become more capable of saying “no” to anger, greed, lust and all the other deadly sins Satan dangles before us. As Venerable Bishop Fulton Sheen said, “Lenten practices of giving up pleasures are a good reminder that the purpose of life is not pleasure. The purpose of life is to attain a perfect life, all truth and undying ecstatic love—which is the definition of God. In pursuing that happiness, we find happiness.”
How can I train?
The Church gives us some basic principles for spiritual training in Lent, so as a community we can be united in personal growth. These include fasting (such as the Ash Wednesday and Good Friday fasts), increasing our time in prayer, and giving of our time, talent and treasure. For some readers, these alone seem like insurmountable obstacles. Yet, that small, still voice calls from our hearts to be something epic. If something seems impossible to overcome, isn’t that the exact thing that an epic person would tackle?
Father Ed Pierce, senior priest of the Diocese of Sioux Falls, provides some advice on how we can apply these to our own lives. For him, the first step is exhibiting the right perspective.
“Having the right attitude towards lenten observances is key,” he says. Regarding fasting, he paraphrases St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians by stating, “The more we say no to the flesh, the more we say yes to the spirit.”
The center of Father Pierce’s lenten observance is a holy hour in front of the Blessed Sacrament at 3 p.m. every day. His focus during this time is adoring the face of Jesus and making reparations for the indifference shown to his Sacred Heart. He makes this his focus based on the urging of St. Faustina’s writings. She relayed from our Lord that, “In this hour, I [Jesus] will refuse nothing to the soul that makes a request of me in virtue of my Passion,” and, “In this hour, you can obtain everything for yourself and others for the asking. It was the hour of grace for the whole world. Mercy triumphed over justice.”
Father Pierce has found his time in adoration has validated this proclamation. When speaking of the fruit of this holy hour and its focus, he says, “Consoling the heart of Jesus creates divine friendship. It’s the eucharistic faith and heart.”
Having that friendship with Christ has prompted him towards interesting life changes, notably occurring during Lent. One in particular started last year.
“I was a good friend of Monsignor Richard Mahowald,” Father Pierce begins. “Monsignor loved sports, but during Lent he didn’t watch TV because in the silence, God speaks. Last year on Ash Wednesday, I was taking my daily rosary walk. It came to me that the big emptiness in my life was missing Monsignor. The thought came to me, ‘Why not do what he used to do?’ So I did no TV all during Lent.
“Later that week, a parishioner gave me the book ‘The Power of Silence,’” he continued. “It was my companion that whole Lent. It helped me embrace silence and listen to God’s voice. I gained a great peace and union with God and a sense of his will every day. Since last Lent, I have not turned on the TV and I’m very much at peace with it. I have found I have conversations with my friends in a deeper way, in addition to less anxiety about the world.”
We crave companionship and peace. This fallen world stresses networking and diversion. Why not use these 40 days to cultivate our heart’s true desire—developing friendship with Christ?
Holiness is possible with a young family
Now, many who read these pages would love to spend more time with the Lord in Lent, but responsibilities make this difficult to accomplish. Jordan Hanssen of St. Stephen Parish in Bridgewater can relate to this. He and his wife, Kelsey, have two young kids: Tytan (3) and Kaizley (1). Yet with two little kids and each having a full-time job, Jordan says Lent can still be a time of spiritual fulfillment through sacrifice.
“Sometimes our Blessed Lord asks so little of us that we fail to understand we need to do the everyday things right,” Jordan says, with echoes of St. Therese of Lisieux in his statement. “It is in doing those little things that we can go the furthest.”
When bound by many commitments, Jordan feels it is best during Lent to not overload yourself, because it can lead to getting discouraged with your lenten observance and dropping everything you want to do. He still accomplishes the goals of prayer, fasting and giving, just in a form that allows for the best use of every minute.
“When I get in the truck for work,” he says, “I pull up my Laudate app and pray the Rosary with Christian Peschken. The recording helps me keep my place no matter what the chaos is around me.”
As fasting is something he can accomplish while still being available for the needs of his family, it becomes an important focus for him during Lent.
“I really focus on fasting on both Wednesday and Friday,” Jordan says. “It’s not always easy though. My body must know it’s not Friday, because every Wednesday my stomach starts growling way more than it does on Friday!”
Despite the gastric cacophony, Jordan understands the sacrifice does pay dividends. “When I stick with fasting, the feeling of accomplishment is fantastic. It’s not that you should go crow about it to others, but that God knows what you’re doing and appreciates your sacrifice.”
Through his and his wife’s commitment to prayer, Jordan feels God has brought them forward in life in wonderful ways.
“Where the family is right now in life was a direct result of praying the Rosary and fasting. God always answers your prayers, not always in the exact time and the exact way you expect,” he says.
Bring a friend on your lenten journey
In either Father Pierce’s, Jordan’s or any other lenten devotions, you may feel this is more than you are capable of doing. In that case, take a note from the pages of epic literature and don’t venture on this journey alone. Frodo traveled with Samwise, and Luke Skywalker had R2D2 there to have his back in a tight spot. The Church understands our strength is in each other, hence the reasons she gives lenten practices for everyone to undertake, so in our mutual sacrifice we can build up one another.
There are many different programs available, both online and in our diocese, that one can join during Lent. Jumping in with an established group can help you find a set of observances to use with a support group helping you along.
Or perhaps this is the opportunity to reach out to that person in your life you’ve wanted to invite deeper into the faith. Many times we feel the nudge to ask someone, but we put it off, giving ourselves a half-hearted excuse as to why it is the wrong time. Yet, our asking them may be the one thing they needed to hear God’s call for them and to show that others care deeply about their growth as well. The ask may feel uncomfortable, but isn’t comfort the enemy of growth?
And that brings us to the heart of Lent. For those wishing to be joined to Christ, Lent will be a time of difficulty that leads to growth. As Jesus says in chapter 15 of the Gospel of John, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit.” Without the cuts of pruning, growth stagnates.
For a person who longs to be something great, stagnation is unacceptable. So, take the plunge into your lenten journey. Live the challenges, relish the companionship with Jesus and your fellow Catholics, and truly experience the joy of Easter Sunday. You may not destroy a Death Star, but your triumphs over selfish indulgence will bring about peace, healing and joy in concrete ways in both your life and the lives of those around you.
In short, be epic!