It is no small feat to maintain the right attitude, demonstrate integrity, be moved by compassion, hold onto truth, be even-handed, well-tempered, and respond well in any and every difficult situation one encounters in the course of the year. Add on a pandemic, climate change, and now a new war, and achieving such serenity could be called a major accomplishment.
But necessary. To keep a job. To hold a family together. To heal a relationship. To promote peace. Or to further God’s purposes in the world.
For nurturing these traits we have spiritual practices. Habits, disciplines, ‘offices’, or rituals that foster a better spiritual disposition to life’s vicissitudes are taught by most faith traditions. My tradition, the Christian faith, lifts these habits up during a 40-day lead-up to Easter (this year, April 17) called Lent, which began on Ash Wednesday (March 2). It’s a time of turning toward God, leaning into spiritual practices, and spending more time than usual in prayer, meditation, reflection, and other activities that point us in God’s direction.
Lent has become a rich time for me and my family. We have cherished it and practiced it together for many years. The basic components for us look something like this:
- DAILY READING. We need perspective. And it needs to not be our own. There are dozens of devotionals out there and the season of Lent offers even more. They often feature entries that correspond to calendar days throughout the year or season. Usually short, potent maxims, Scripture passages, and words from the wise, they get us out of ourselves and move us toward reflection on a higher plane. This is probably the most ubiquitous and commonly practiced spiritual discipline. odb.org is one of the most popular year-round devotionals. www.faithward.org has one specifically for Lent.
- PRAYER AND MEDITATION. This is harder for a lot of people. Praying to a deity can feel weird, remote, other-worldly, or downright spooky. It is a tremendous comfort when people discover how simple, honest, spontaneous, and un-rehearsed prayer can be. Just talk to God! It’s really that simple. There are certainly different ways to talk to God just as there are different ways to talk to people, but there is no ‘right’ way other than being honest. A quiet, private place is, of course, preferred. Many people like to do this first thing in the morning, but others find their own time of day for this. Setting aside time each day makes it a practice, even if only for 5 minutes. Personally, I have a hard time fitting this into an hour. But it’s not the length of time but rather the sincerity and the regularity that make it effective.
- FELLOWSHIP. You may get together with other people all the time, but during Lent it’s important to get together with others a little more intentionally, and for honest sharing. It could be in a church, it could at a coffee shop, it could be at a bar. Honest, genuine dialogue about things that matter in life constitutes good fellowship and it is an essential part of any spiritual life. Without it, it is just too easy for pride, ego, self-pity, or morbid thinking to rule the day.
- SERVICE. We do a lot of this at GGC, but many have found it more than helpful for centering oneself, getting perspective, and regenerating the soul. When we set our sights on the needs of others, we invite God’s peace into our own hearts. While we bless others, we ourselves receive blessing, sometimes more than we give!
- ABSTINENCE. Believe it or not, this is what our family associates most with Lent. Every year, each one of the five of us decides what they are going to give up. We have chosen all sorts of things, oftentimes changing it up from year to year: chocolate, carbs, meat, candy, coffee (ouch!), social media – you name it! We never forced anyone to give up anything, and we usually make Sunday an EXEMPT day just to break up the rigor. But even when they were young my girls understood the significance and willingly forewent a worldy comfort for a season. Never easy but in the end always poignant and meaningful. ‘Cleansing’ might be a better word. And it made Easter all the more special. Speaking of which . . .
- CELEBRATION. Joy is an inevitable outgrowth of meaningful suffering. The two have always gone hand in hand. When your season of spiritual renewal has come to an end, it’s time to reflect back over the experience, recognize how you’ve grown, consider some practices you may want to continue throughout the year, and thank God for his presence in your life. Discipline does not exclude rejoicing.
Whatever your faith tradition, there is simply no substitute for spiritual discipline when it comes to growing in your faith. If our bodies deserve physical fitness, if our minds merit academic training, if our emotions warrant mental health, surely – surely! – our spirit deserves training. For our benefit. And for the world’s.