Preparing the heart for Lent

Back in the day when I was working in the world and spending way too much time on airplanes accumulating way too many frequent-flyer miles, it seemed to me business travelers did three things on longer flights: sleep, work, or read Stephen’ Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” The book argues that one should align universal and timeless principles with one’s values. Covey sees principles as external natural laws, while values remain internal and subjective. Covey asserts that values govern people’s behavior, but principles ultimately determine the consequences. If sales volume is a measure of the usefulness of this self-help book, then 25+ million copies sold says something. Maybe there are some possibilities for a parallel book about the best practices and habits for Catholics. Might be a Lenten best seller! “The 7 Habits of a Clean Heart.”

I suspect we humans under-appreciate the impact and power of habits – good and bad. Nature hates a vacuum. So, we either form Christian habits of the heart or other habits of the heart will surely find their own place in our hearts and shape our identities. What would be your list for the habits that well form our heart as Christian people? Here is my list:

Read the Word of God – have the Word ever in your mind and heart. In those grey moments when you are wondering what to do, the answer to WWJD (what would Jesus do) is written in the Sacred Scriptures. Where to start? Start with one of the three synoptic (“see with the same eye”) gospels: Mark, Matthew, or Luke – and simply learn the stories – not verbatim, but in your own words.  Let telling gospel stories become a habit of your heart.

Cultivate an active prayer life – no sense falling in love with Jesus if you’re not going to talk with Him. God cannot effectively change, shape and mold our lives unless we share it with Him in prayer. We Catholics are awesome at standard prayers. We Catholics are less comfortable with prayer as conversation with God. It does not have to be dramatic or poetic. Sit in a moment of quiet (says the priest with no kids!…) and tell God about your day and how you experienced the day. “That person at work just annoyed me again today. I don’t know what it is about them. They just press my buttons in all the wrong ways. What it is about me that gets so riled up and flummoxed?” And wait for a response. Perhaps you might hear the voice of God, experience of Wisdom that comes to mind, or have grace walk into your life on two feet to help you answer the questions. The habit of prayer is what keeps us tuned in to God. Without the habit of prayer, the noisy demands of the world and our impulses are all we can ever hear.

Set spiritual goals – “If you don’t plan for success, you are planning to fail.” Whether it is a business or a school, a family or a sports team, everyone needs to plan. What makes us think it is any different for our spiritual lives? The well-formed heart asks that we set personal spiritual goals and actively work towards them, making the necessary sacrifices to eventually reach them. Katie Ledecky and Michael Phelps set their goals long before they stood on the Olympic medal stand. What is your plan to form a loving heart?

Know what God calls you to do – We are all members of the Body of Christ, hopefully doing what we do best. We all seem to have natural dispositions, talents, and skills. St. Paul recognizes this in his letter to the Ephesians when he tells us that, as a community, God’s purpose is to “equip the holy ones for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” (Eph 4:12). We need to have the habit of recognizing, cultivating, and encouraging our talents and the talents of others. And not assume that what we know best is the best we have to offer the harvest of the Kingdom of God. There is the self that the world knows and loves – the engineer, the artist, the teacher, the businessperson, the accountant, hospice nurse, the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker. And there is the person being formed by habits of the heart. The businessman who experienced great success in the technology sector and was known as a “rocket scientist” – and took a deep breath, volunteering to be a mentor at Cristo Rey High School. He begins to wonder, “why didn’t I do this earlier, this is amazing.”  We are asked to know what God calls us to do at various points in our life.

Take Responsibility – because we are all members of the Body of Christ, we are called to take responsibility for our own souls – with the help of the community and priests – but in the end each one of us is responsible. The history of the people of God in the Hebrew Scriptures has a recurring theme of the people letting someone else “take care of religion” leaving the other to be responsible for holiness. As much bad press as the Pharisees get, they were a movement that stood up and said, “No, holiness is not just for the Temple. We need to live holiness at home, in the fields, in all we do.” Responsibility begins with the well-formed heart, the habit of choosing the good for souls, and spending our energies on what is most precious to our heart’s desire.

Serve Others – “…The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve…” (Mt 20:28). It has been said that your heart’s desire is the seedbed of passion and that service is connecting your passion to someone else’s need. When you get home, do a search of “ted talk on service to others.”  There is an amazing array of talks and reflections that focus on not just the benefit to others, but how service to others is at the same time a benefit to you. The habit of selfless service to others for their good is the means to develop the understanding that service is a way of life born out of love for Jesus. When asked why we serve, we naturally respond, “I am compelled by the love of Christ.” (cf. 2 Cor 5:14)

Take time to know where your feet are – One of my favorite parables is “The Parable of the Sower”: “A sower went out to sow…Some (seed) fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep, and when the sun rose it was scorched, and it withered for lack of roots. Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it.” (Mt 13:3-7). A good habit for Christians is to be attentive and to always check your feet. Do you find yourself in shallow soil or among the thorns of life? The everyday includes worry about deadlines, debts, health, family, busyness in work and activities, pandemic, emergencies, and a whole host of other things that take our attention, our energy, and maybe our heart. A well-formed heart has the habit of ever looking for the “rich soil, [to produce] fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.” (Mt 13:8). Sometimes just move your feet!

Develop faith-filled habits for a lifetime; habits that become a natural part of our lives. Nature hates a vacuum. So, we either form Christian habits of the heart or other habits will surely find their own place in our hearts. This Lent start the habits that clean the heart and make a place for Jesus to live and the Spirit to abide.

3 thoughts on “Preparing the heart for Lent

  1. Coming from a different faith tradition, there are so many things I am grateful for. Being a part of the Body of Christ is extraordinary. Knowing with all your heart that you are loved truly! And, most importantly, having a more personal relationship with Christ.

    Father George, thank you for this lovely post. A beautiful reminder of who we are! We are one of the Beloved. We are loved beyond measure. May our hearts always be a beacon of love to others, like Christ’s love has always been for us!

  2. Great post, Father G. I would love to read more about setting spiritual goals, and what different types of spiritual goals might look like.

  3. This is honestly one of the best pieces of spiritual “advice” I’ve read…ever. “no sense falling in love with Jesus if you’re not going to talk with him”, particularly resonated with me., as well as “Nature hates a vacuum…” Thank you Fr.George.

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