By Corrine Winter
I am in the process of cleaning out my office as I look forward to retiring. It’s an interesting process that brings out a variety of feelings. I get frustrated with myself for having kept so much over the course of 23 years. Why didn’t I know I would never look at those articles again? It is exciting to put grade sheets and various other required forms into the shredding basket knowing that in a couple of months I won’t need to file those any more. I set some books in a special pile because I look forward to reading them more slowly and carefully as I will no longer need to be preparing for so many different courses at the same time. Perhaps I will finally gain the deeper insight into the complexity of the author’s thought that has seemed to elude me. Then some days I look at the stacks and just don’t want to face the decisions about what will and what won’t continue to be important to me.
The physical clearing out strikes me as belonging to a larger life-process I have long associated with the season of Lent. While praying and fasting with those preparing to join or to enter into full communion with the church, it seems natural also to examine and sharpen the focus of our own life-commitments in order to participate as fully as possible in the mission to which God calls us. What habits and practices are most vital to our identity and vocation? What ideas have we heard of and always intended to integrate into our lives but never seemed to find the time to do so? What has, perhaps, become routine and non-reflective so that it no longer contributes to our spiritual growth? Are some possessions or pursuits draining time and energy we really want to direct elsewhere?
Considering those questions can be frustrating or even a bit frightening. Change, even change that we know to be positive, can be unsettling because the outcome is not known for certain. But on-going conversion belongs to the core of Christian life just as active decision-making is vital to making fruitful moves from one stage to another of life in general.
The church offers many opportunities to reflect on our life-choices and directions. Many parishes host prayer-experiences ranging from eucharistic adoration to Bible studies, from Stations of the Cross to Taize. Local retreat centers such as Our Lady of the Prairie and Benet House offer longer opportunities — a day, or a weekend — that include shared reflections, time and space for personal prayer, and opportunities to meet with a spiritual director.
The Catholic Spiritual Tradition includes many sources for reading that can help guide our reflections. There are spiritual classics including the works of Theresa of Avila, Catherine of Sienna, Thomas Merton and countless others. Each writer challenges us from a perspective born out of her or his spiritual experience, and all are grounded in Scripture and in the sacramental life of the church. There are magisterial writings such as Pope Francis’ encyclical on “The Joy of the Gospel,” or his writings on mercy, as well as older materials of which Pope Benedict’s on the Eucharist and Pope John Paul’s on “Faith and Reason” are among my favorites. The documents of Vatican II, especially chapter V of Lumen Gentium which addresses the universal call to holiness, certainly bear re-reading.
The theologian Karl Rahner once wrote that we often fail to be the subjects of our own lives. He meant that we too often allow ourselves to go about our business too mechanically, without consciously deciding what we are about and why we are doing things. Lent seems to me a good time to be more attuned to our own lives so that we may live them fully as God calls us to do.
(Corinne Winter is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)