Bishop Hying

Consider how the forty days of Lent can become a spiritual ‘game-changer’

As published in the Northwest Indiana Catholic on January 31, 2016   


       We have just finished putting away the Christmas decorations and now it’s almost time for Lent!  Ash Wednesday is early this year, February 10, so we move quickly from celebrating the incarnation of Jesus to preparing for His death and resurrection. Lent is always a graced period for us, as the Church invites us to go into a forty day retreat in the desert with the Lord and all of those preparing to celebrate the Easter sacraments.

       Often times, we give up something for Lent as a form of penance - chocolate, television, snacking. I usually give up coffee but always do it cold turkey. Two days after Ash Wednesday, I’m ready to check into the hospital for caffeine withdrawal, but then it gets better.  Some year I hope to do it smarter. Does God really care if we sacrifice something, embrace a penance or fast regularly? 

       In a discussion with the Pharisees about why His disciples do not fast, Jesus reshapes the practice of fasting as a sign of our incompleteness, our longing for the fullness of God’s kingdom and the presence of the Messiah.

       When we feel depressed, anxious, lonely or needy, we all get the urge to fill that longing with a quick fix. Alcohol, shopping, food or television become ways to fill the hole in our hearts, to relieve what we are feeling within, to take our mind off the emptiness. Fasting of any kind becomes a sacred reminder that only God can fulfill our deepest desires. I can live without coffee, snacks, cigarettes, cable news and beer, but I can’t survive without prayer, love and mercy. I can’t take my next breath without the Holy Spirit. I can’t hope for eternal life without Jesus. 

       Fasting and penance remind me that I am just passing through this world; that I can’t afford to cling to anything, except the Lord. Voluntarily renouncing some of the pleasures of this life orients me towards the good things of the Kingdom. Fasting reminds me that we are not fully there yet, but are well on the way.

       Lent also focuses on almsgiving, reaching out to those in need with greater generosity and compassion. Especially in this Year of Mercy, the Lord calls us to encounter the suffering and the poor with greater intention and feeling. What will we do? 

       I am hoping to go somewhere every week of Lent, whether it’s a meal program, a hospital, a nursing home or a homeless shelter, to seek out God’s beautiful children. It’s not so much that I have anything to give that will help them, transform their lives or change their situations. I hear God calling me to go because I am in need of help, transformation and conversion. A visit with the poor and suffering is a 100 percent guaranteed encounter with the living Christ. 

       In this Holy Year, I have reflected and prayed more profoundly on how tender and compassionate God is with me, despite all of my sins and errors and how I am called to be that merciful face of the Lord to others. The Lord’s Prayer reminds us that we can only receive the gift of God’s forgiveness to the extent that we are willing to pass on what none of us deserve, but all of us long for and need. Who needs to feel your love, mercy, kindness and concern? Ask the Lord each morning to use you to be His tenderness to others. 

       How painful yet joyous is it to grapple with our own betrayals and harshness, to embrace our weakness, to lift it to the Lord in reconciliation and then to be freed of the debt, the guilt, the burden.  In that new-found freedom, we can help lift the heavy weight that others carry around.

       I have come to realize over and over again that the greatest thing I can do for our diocese is to pray, to offer the Eucharist, to spend time in Eucharistic Adoration, to meditate on Scripture, to be faithful to the Liturgy of the Hours, to lift up the many needs of our people. As Christians, all of our activity flows to and from our relationship with the Lord.

       Lent is a great time to enter more deeply into prayer, to find a practice and a routine that will draw us into daily conversation and time spent with God. If we are not actively and intentionally developing our prayer life, we will never become the intimate friend of the Lord that He longs us to be. Our discipleship will never be fully fruitful. We will miss out to some extent on our fundamental purpose.

       My best prayer times are when I am on retreat at a Trappist monastery - the monks chanting the psalms in the early morning dark, the silence that is so deep as to be an inner voice of peace, the solitude that knocks out all distractions. I can pray there as naturally as breathing. God is so real, I can touch Him! Then I come back to the work, stresses and schedules of “real” life and my prayerful centeredness vanishes like a wisp of smoke. I know the challenge is to build the monastery in my heart, to seek the stillness in the midst of the noise, to seek out those places and times of prayer that beckon even in the midst of overflowing schedules. Fasting, prayer and almsgiving is what Lent has always been about. 

       How will these upcoming forty days be a spiritual game-changer for you?  How will we respond to the Lord as we are called both into the desert and the world, to find God in the most surprising and ordinary places?


      + Donald J. Hying


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