What is Lent all about?
In responding to this question, many will turn to various words ending with –ing.
Praying. Fasting. Almsgiving. Suffering. Dying. Longing. Journeying. And, of course, forgetting.
Perhaps you have heard something like this before: “Last Friday, I was three-fourths of the way through eating a quarter-pound double cheeseburger with extra bacon when I realized that I was forgetting about Lent.”
One of these –ing words that perhaps we do not hear enough in Lent is learning.
Learning was the theme of the day on Ash Wednesday here at St. Francis de Sales Seminary as we were led during a day of recollection by our director of spiritual formation, Fr. Tom DeVries, a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. Fr. DeVries is one director of what are called the dimensions of seminary formation. There are four dimensions: human, intellectual, spiritual and pastoral. The director of spiritual formation coordinates our retreat experiences, individual spiritual direction, and various other duties that ultimately aid our seminary community in developing a life of prayer. For one day each semester, the entire seminary community will put aside our studies and ministries to step into silence and receive several talks from a designated speaker. Fr. DeVries merged this theme of learning with the three traditional Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving as he delivered three 20-plus minute conferences to the community.
The first talk in the morning addressed the Lenten practice of prayer under the title “Learning to be still.” What struck me most in this opening conference was a quote that Fr. DeVries shared from 17th century philosopher Blaise Pascal, who said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” This inability is intensified by our ongoing immersion in social media and other distracting forms of technology. Fr. DeVries pointed to the recent news that Justin Rosenstein, the software engineer who developed the Facebook ‘Like’ feature, has banned applications from his phone to curb distraction and even prevent addiction. Fortunately, a life of prayer can combat the noisiness of life and bring about peace and silence. “Prayer is the antidote for a world of diversion and frenetic superficiality,” Fr. DeVries said.
At Mass in the afternoon, Fr. DeVries preached the homily about the Lenten practice of fasting with the title “Learning to let go.” He pointed out the common view of fasting as a sort of “white-knuckled austerity.” However, by instead approaching fasting as letting go, we can more readily discover the real treasures of life that we seek. Calling on many examples from the lives of the saints, Fr. DeVries illumined the reality that through fasting, we let go of certain things that are good so that we can focus on what, or rather who, is ultimately good. The penances that we undertake in this season of Lent should reorient ourselves to put God back at the center of our lives.
Finally in the evening during an hour of Eucharistic Adoration, Fr. DeVries shared a conference on the Lenten practice of almsgiving titled “Learning to love.” Fr. DeVries drew a parallel between the notion that almsgiving is tied to what actions we take up during Lent and how we see love revealed in action. “The only way to learn how to love is by loving,” he said. The English poet William Blake wrote that we must “learn to bear the beams of love” that come from God. It is in almsgiving during Lent that we can be transformed by God’s love and then bring His love to those in need.
So as you continue the journey of Lent, I will echo Fr. DeVries’ challenge to learn this Lent by posing three questions to ask yourself. Have I been still this Lent? What do I still need to let go of this Lent? How is God calling me to love this Lent?
Tracy is a seminarian for the Diocese of Superior. He can be reached at .