Or: The one where Luke lazily recycles an article he wrote for a newspaper. Note: This originally appeared in the Parramatta Diocese’s Catholic Outlook.
“What are you giving up for Lent?” As a young Catholic, this is a frequently asked question – and primary concern – in the Lenten season. After all, in a world where I can access almost anything I want by jumping in my car or hopping on the Internet, denying myself a pleasure is an occasion for pause. While some may lament that Lenten practices have been relaxed considerably in recent times, there is little doubt that giving up something simple like coffee or chocolate is an occasion for spiritual growth today. Yet perhaps in my focus on the practice of abstinence during Lent in previous years, I had risked not seeing the forest for the trees. The Church does not ask us to engage in Lenten self-denial as a weight-loss programme, nor counter-cultural political statement, nor even just a disciplinary bootcamp. What is Lent about, then?
On receiving an invitation to Schoenstatt’s Lent4Real Retreat, I immediately zeroed in on the word “Retreat”. “This sounds awesome,” I thought, “sitting in silence in the Mulgoa bushland, having time to pray and recollect my often scattered thoughts, actually catching up on some sleep…”. The “Lent” part of the title seemed to be more of an acknowledgement of its proximity to Ash Wednesday, rather than an indication of the retreat’s content. It is becoming obvious that I miss the forest for the trees frequently. On my arrival I found that, far from being a vague time-out session in late February, the purpose of the retreat was to take me through the very passion and death of Jesus Christ. Rather than relaxing with the kangaroos, I would follow Christ intimately as He would undergo the greatest suffering one could endure – and the greatest act of Love one could pour out. The ways we were taken into this experience were more practical than expected: sharing a meal and reflecting upon the Passover, struggling to keep awake before Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, hand-making a crown of (real, and painful) thorns, and praying the Way of the Cross while carrying an actual cross. Indeed, this was Lent “4Real”.
Throughout the weekend we were guided by Sr M. Julie Brcar in prayer and reflection on the person of Christ and the context of His passion, from the olives at the Garden of Gethsemane to the thorns which pierced Our Lord’s head. In this way my feelings of tiredness, discomfort or agitation were directed out of myself and towards Jesus and His disciples. Of course, it was not all reflective or penitential, we were treated to numerous breaks and sugary meals – I was even greeted by some seasonably appropriate pancakes for breakfast. It wasn’t quite Lent yet, after all. While there many graces that were gained from the retreat, the greatest blessing was certainly the experience of going through the Passion with Christ, as the title suggests, for real. All too often I have allowed theoretical concepts to be disconnected from grounded reality – separating the meaning of Lent from the practice. In his Ash Wednesday homily, Pope Francis said that Lent is not about “outward forms or vague intentions”, but a time to “give ourselves a shake-up”. By providence, my own Mt Schoenstatt shake-up uncovered the combined meaning and practice of Lent, and allowed me to finally see the forest: everything in Lent is about deepening our relationship with the God Who became Man. While I didn’t come out of the Lent4Real Retreat with fresher face or a lower blood-sugar level, I did come out with a greater practical understanding of the experience of Christ – and the best preparation for Lent in my Christian journey thus far.