Every year I make plans for my Lenten practices and spiritual reading, but I know to be flexible because every year an unanticipated thrust emerges and shapes the contours of my Lent. One year it was forgiveness and reconciliation. Another year I found myself called to simplify and detach from the material world.
I don’t plan for these themes but a confluence of my selected readings, unexpected experiences, and stumbled upon teachings from saints, clergy, lay evangelists, and others inevitably distills my Lenten reflections into a sharper focus.
In the early days of this year’s Lent I am already discovering my thread for reflection. It is Lent as a pilgrimage. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
Pilgrimages evoke our earthly journey toward heaven and are traditionally very special occasions for renewal in prayer. (CCC 2691)
In Rome, the idea of a Lenten journey is made concrete by the pilgrimages to a designated station church each day. Since the early fourth century the faithful have gathered and walked to a church to learn from and reflect on a particular saint or martyr commemorated by the station church and to celebrate Mass as a community of pilgrims. I would love to be in Rome during Lent and participate in these daily sojourns.
As this is not an option, I am joining in from afar by reading Roman Pilgrimage, The Station Churches by George Weigel. This book brings together the daily liturgical readings, the station church artwork and architecture, as well as the lives of the saints to create what Weigel terms an “itinerary of conversion”.
Like every other journey, my pilgrimage through Lent requires that I evaluate what I will carry with me and what I will leave behind. Have you ever hung on to something because it might be valuable someday or you might find it useful someday? In the meantime it just clutters up the basement or the closet. Then you give it away and find out that you don’t miss it at all.
The Lenten disciplines of fasting, alms giving, and prayer help me cull the excess baggage that clutters my journey. It is time to lighten my load and shed vainglory and other worldly preoccupations that are slowing me down.
I must also know where I am going and how to get there. Pope Francis points to both the destination and the right road to get there in this year’s first Lenten Angelus address:
This is the meaning of this first Sunday of Lent: to place ourselves decisively on the path of Jesus, the road that leads to life. To look at Jesus. Look at what Jesus has done and go with Him. This path of Jesus passes through the desert… Now let us enter into the desert without fear, because we are not alone: we are with Jesus, with the Father and with the Holy Spirit.
Lent is a time to check the spiritual GPS and make sure I haven’t strayed from the recommend route. Am I listening when the Holy Spirit says, “recalculating”? I may not be able to actually walk the streets of Rome this Lent but I can do as Pope Francis exhorts and place myself on the path of Jesus.
My pilgrimage began on Ash Wednesday. If I am successful, Easter Sunday should find that I have made at least a little progress down the road.