Next Wednesday is Ash Wednesday — hard to believe that Lent is here already! Join with me, friends, in making a firm intention not to waste the phenomenally-rich season of grace that is Lent. How will we derive maximum benefit out of this season of preparation? Let me count the ways:
First, begin with the end in mind ; that is, remember for what it is that we prepare! The historical events of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of our blessed Lord Jesus were anticipated by the People of Israel wandering forty years in the desert and by Jesus’ own forty days of prayer and fasting in the desert. We can surely spend a little time in a "desert" of self-renunciation, fasting and prayer to prepare our souls to enter into the Paschal Mystery, the greatest of all gifts that touch our lives. Acts of self-abnegation are not ends in themselves; they are means to the end of becoming more pure in our relationship with God and man.
Second, stay simple ; that is, don’t load yourself down with too many spiritual exercises or intentions that may discourage you if you run too fast out into the desert. While I am all for heroism in religious practices, I am also realistic about the power of the world, the flesh and the devil to undermine our best efforts. This is why the Church gives us very minimal and, quite frankly, rather easy "penitential" practices in Lent: required fasting is only on two days (Ash Wednesday and Good Friday; guaranteed, these won’t kill anyone!), abstinence from meat is only on Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent (a modest inconvenience for any active person) and our "Easter duty" (Communion at Eastertime and sacramental confession as needed before that). Despite its minimal rigor, though, the Church makes sure that the penitential dimension of this season remains intact. Each person can invest himself in penitential practices beyond this, but make sure you are diligent about the very basics that the Church requires, for obedience is the first of the virtues in religion.
Finally, go for high spiritual impact . That is, identify and practice faithfully just one really magnificent goal for your personal conversion this Lent. I say conversion and not "personal improvement" lest anyone interpret the call to spiritual discipline as a chance to lose weight or quit smoking! What Lent demands of us is to look into our vicious, slothful and petty nature and challenge it with the full prophetic force of the Gospel. A well-intentioned person who stacks up a dozen goals for personal change but accomplishes few or none of them is not a better person at the end of Lent. He is more scattered, less disciplined and under a the illusion of false piety thinking that he is doing something holy by multiplying activities without transforming his heart. In contrast, the one who targets his habit of petty backbiting with a shock-and-awe campaign of generosity toward those he finds disagreeable is the one who receives a blessing from the Lord because he acts like John the Baptist who Jesus said "took the Kingdom by storm." Any mature person will know that a single, firm and effective intention to convert one’s heart is worth more than a thousand acts of superficial piety.
Focus on the goal, remain simple and obedient, go for true conversion of heart — those who resolve to walk through Lent with these intentions will reap the benefit of conformity to Christ when we finally arrive at the High Holy Days of our blessed Faith.
Blessings for the journey and be assured of my prayers!