Prayer, fasting, almsgiving. Those are the three pillars of this penitential season, whose first full week we’re in.
As the Holy Father advises in his Message for Lent this year, these practices aren’t supposed to be undertaken in isolation; they’re intended to bring us into deeper union with Jesus.
Performed in the proper spirit, our penances aren’t meant to be heavy and arbitrary burdens, but exercises that free us from our attachments, leaving us with lighter spirits and ready to enter into the joy of the Resurrection by the time Easter rolls around.
Some years I’m more “in” to Lent than others, by which I mean some years my emotional state allows me to enter immediately into the spirit of repentance for my sins and understand how my Lenten practices are helping me.
Other years “Brother Ass,” as St. Francis of Assisi called the body, doesn’t cooperate so readily, and by the end of Ash Wednesday I’m already thinking, “Isn’t Lent over yet?” I have to make acts of faith that my pious practices are having any effect.
Spiritual reading can be a huge help making our Lenten resolutions bear fruit. Reading Scripture daily, or taking up some spiritual classic such as the “Imitation of Christ” can encourage us when we’re having a hard Lent or help us make the connection between abstract practices and the relationship with God we’re trying to build.
There are many “tried and true” volumes on developing a solid relationship with God. Here are four you may not know.
“Interior Freedom” by Rev. Jacques Philippe. It is literally a liberating experience to read this brief little volume, written in an accessible and invigorating style. Interior Freedom is an antidote to the feeling of being stuck in the rat-race or anxious about the many things which are out of our control. A contemporary gem, Fr. Philippe shows that it really is possible to rejoice in all circumstances, and that each of us has a strength and freedom that absolutely no one can take away from us.
“The Discernment of Spirits: An Ignatian Guide for Everyday Living,” by Timothy M. Gallagher, OMV. Can you tell the difference between the precise and rational “sting” of conscience and vague feelings of confusion, heaviness and sadness that sap our energy for prayer and Christian living? Fr. Gallagher has written an extremely practical explanation of St. Ignatius’ rules for discernment in language anyone can understand, using examples anyone who has seriously tried to pray will recognize in his own life. It’s not an inspirational volume as such, but it’s enormously insightful and helpful. If you’re feeling a little “stuck” in your spiritual life – or finding you have lost your taste for prayer—Fr. Gallagher might help you get unstuck. (See his volume on Examen Prayer, too; it’s a beautiful tool for recognizing the action of grace in our lives.)
“The Hidden Power of Kindness,” by Rev. Lawrence Lovasik. Pope John Paul II was fond of exhorting different Catholic groups with a line from St. Catherine of Siena. “If you are what you should be, you will set the world on fire!” What Christians should be is good, and Fr. Lovasik’s simple and appealing volume breaks down what that entails -- and inspires with the power of simple goodness to change the world.
“Jesus of Nazareth, vol. II” by Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI). This is heavier going than the volumes noted above, but what could be better Lenten reading than a prolonged meditation on the events of Holy Week? A master teacher, the Holy Father uses his own thorough-going knowledge of the Old Testament and the original biblical languages to bring out dimensions of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection an ordinary reader of English might miss.
Whatever our soul is thirsting for: whether to be freed from chains, to be challenged, inspired or renewed, a well-chosen book can be good company during the season of Lent.