Last week was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season we call Lent. Lent is a time for Christians to detach their hearts from things that draw us away from God and renew our faith in Christ. Central to this season are three spiritual disciplines: Fasting, penance, and almsgiving.
Penance and almsgiving are rather straight forward in the spiritual life. Penance is when we do a moral inventory of our life and ask God for forgiveness of our sins. For Catholics, this is most commonly done through the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, exercising Jesus' gift to his disciples of the ministry of forgiving sins. (John 20:22-23) Almsgiving is the practice of offering material support for those who are poor and in need. The most common form of almsgiving is donating to a favorite charity. However, almsgiving can take on the form of donations of food, clothing, or even our time to help those who struggle due to a lack of material goods.
The third discipline of fasting may seem to be straight forward: Don't eat food. However, the spirituality of this practice is a bit deeper than simply going on a 40 day diet. The spirituality of fasting is that we are to deny ourselves a material good so that God can fill us with a greater spiritual good. Therefore, if I decide to skip lunch, it does little good for me spiritually if I don't take that time and somehow seek to feed my spiritual life. Perhaps I will take that time and meditate upon Scripture, pray a rosary, spend some time in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, or some other practice from the rich spiritual tradition of the Church.
It is recommended by the Church that the practice of fasting from food be delayed until the age of 16. Therefore, none of my grade school students at St. Joseph School are bound to this practice. That being said, to help prepare for Lent, I asked our students if there was a different type of fast we could do as a school that didn't involve food? I was both impress and stunned that every grade gravitated toward the same recommendation: Let's spend less time on our technological gadgets and gizmos.
Whether it be video games, social media, smart phones, or IPads, all of our students made a commitment this Lent to spend only 20 minutes a day on their technological toys and then spend 10 minutes in prayer. Having worked with youth my entire priesthood, I set my expectation bar rather low for this goal. How blessed I felt when, at this past Friday's school Liturgy, many of my students were excited to tell me what they were doing for prayer during Lent. It was truly a "Proud Father Moment!"
As I prayed for my students and reflected upon my own Lent, I was drawn to think about astronomy. Technology has greatly blessed the field of astronomy, allowing scientists and hobbyists alike to deepen their knowledge and love of the heavens. However, amid the digitally altered images, online observatories, and citizen science programs that are based on crunching massive amounts of computer data, it dawned on me that Lent can also be a time to step away from the technology of astronomy and simply go outside, naked eyed, and enjoy the night sky as I did when I was a child.
This past week, I received a new Associate Pastor by the name of Fr. Leo. He is from India and is a delightful man. Saturday night, we went out to dinner to start to get to know each other. He mentioned that someone told him that I write for The Catholic Astronomer. He shared with me that, in India, the constellations have different names and would like to go through them with me to see which are similar and which are different. When we got home, we were blessed with a beautifully clear winter night with Orion the Hunter looming overhead. We began our journey and had a delightful night talking not only about astronomy, but our childhoods as well, exploring how gazing at the stars was memorable for both of us. When I got ready for bed, I realized I had just practiced what I preached - Astronomy that was detached from the technological advancements of modern science and emphasized the simple, spiritual connection we create when gazing into the heavens.
If you are blessed with clear skies and tolerable temperatures this week, I would encourage you to go outside and enjoy some "Lenten Stargazing." Leave the technological toys at home and reconnect with the simple pleasure of looking at the night sky in a way that was the first spark for many of us to investigate the heavens. And if you are willing to let your heart be drawn into God's love for you, also take a moment to give thanks for this Lenten season when we are asked to simplify our lives so we can be drawn closer to the divine. Let us all detach our hearts from our obsession with material goods and attach our hearts to God's love, mercy, and peace.
Happy Lent everyone!