Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Habits form us throughout our lives. Good habits, developed over the years, take root and positively influence much about our mentality, daily routine, life goals, and interpersonal relationships. Bad habits, by definition, wield a negative influence and are often very difficult to break. The spiritual life is as influenced by habit as any other aspect of human existence.
Habit is formed by practice. Musicians learn at a young age to repeat scales, to sing or play in a particular way, and to do these things over and over again until they become second nature. That repetition forms the necessary musical foundation that they will need as their skill continues to develop. At first, a novice musician might feel bored with scales and want to move on to something more challenging. A wise teacher insists they continue practicing scales, for this basic element must be present for more difficult music to be made. The habit bears fruit when the musician is able to pick up their instrument and play even without prior preparation, almost without thinking. On the other hand, a bad habit acquired over time can also become something that we do without any forethought, and it can seem to come too easily. Habit in the positive sense is virtue. Virtue is defined as habitually choosing that which is good, and as this habit is acquired, we grow in grace, wisdom, and holiness. In the negative sense, sin, choosing that which is evil, very easily becomes habit for us, and the more that habit of sin grows in our hearts, the more we distance ourselves from the grace and mercy of God.
Lent is a season for building up good habits for virtue and eradicating bad habits of sin. Our Lenten discipline is meant to be both a school of repentance and a school of virtue. On Ash Wednesday we were challenged to “Repent, and believe in the Gospel,” to “Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” The Church calls us to the Sacrament of Confession, that we might repent of our sins. Even more, the Lord not only calls us to repentance but to a true transformation of our lives. And it is here that the school of repentance gives way to the school of virtue. Having repented of sin, we begin to develop the habit of first rejecting sin and temptation each time we encounter it. Then, with that habit established, we begin to grow in the virtues that help us to both avoid sin and actively seek to do, say, and think that which is good and holy.
The three-fold task of Lent can seem daunting at first. It is not uncommon to hear people talk about “doing something good instead of” fasting or prayer. The Church, however, teaches us that all three are linked and essential. If you find yourself uncertain about how to embrace all three, simply examine your participation and understanding of the Mass, for at every Sunday Mass, we are invited into this triple discipline in a powerful way.
Fasting: The Church teaches us to fast from food for one hour prior to receiving Holy Communion. So every Mass is accompanied by a physical form of fasting! Etiquette dictates that (in general), we should have electronic devices silenced and put away during the Mass, and thus our fasting moves from the body to the discipline of our action and attention. During Lent, the Church calls for the liturgy to be somewhat simplified, and so our fasting is also a fasting of the eyes and ears, as fewer decorations and less music is part of our worship. Finally, we fast from our own preferences by joining our personal prayer to the prayer of the Church. It can sometimes feel penitential at Mass to hear certain music or listen to homilies, yet participation in Mass allows us to fast from control and pride and surrender ourselves to the communal liturgical action of the Church.
Almsgiving: You all know about the offertory collection, and it, of course, stands out as the most obvious moment for almsgiving during Mass. While almsgiving refers in the first place to generosity with money, it also refers to generosity in service to our neighbor. So give alms, and hold the door for someone running in from the parking lot. Give alms, and surrender your prime seat on the center aisle and move in so people can easily find a seat. Give alms, and introduce yourself to someone you’ve sat close to for years but never met.
Prayer: Of course we understand that Mass is a place of prayer. In spite of that understanding, it is easy to approach Mass passively, to take a place in the pew and wait to be entertained or touched by God’s grace. To more fully embrace the discipline of prayer during Mass, it can help to formulate a specific prayer intention before you get to church. What/who is it for which you want to pray? Arrive at Mass early – that is, be in a pew at least 2 to 5 minutes before the Mass begins. Early arrival whenever possible allows time to recall the intention and to quiet the heart and mind in preparation for the mystery about to be offered. Remember that as you pray at Mass, you are spiritually, mystically linked to all Catholics throughout the world who pray the Mass with you, as well as to the whole host of Heaven who worship God without ceasing.
The Mass becomes a true school of virtue, then. If we can develop of the habit of being at Mass, then soon the habit of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving can take root. When we learn to fast before and during the Mass, we realize how easy it is to fast at other times and can make fasting, self-denial, and humility a regular part of our lives even outside of Lent. When we learn to give alms in the ways outlined above during Mass, we realize how easy it is to be generous with time and energy in other moments of our lives, whether at home, during a commute, with friends, or any of the other countless encounters with human beings we have each day. When we learn to pray as the Church prays, that liturgical prayer influences our own personal piety and we learn how easy it is set aside time and space for intimate conversation with the Lord. In these days of Lent, do not be afraid to break down the bad habits of sin and build up the good habits of virtue. Let your prayer, fasting, and almsgiving be a three-fold habit that brings genuine transformation to your life and to your cooperation with God’s grace this Lent.