Column by Jonathan Nagy
I know every morning that I need to leave my house by a certain minute to make sure that I have clear sailing for my journey to Bishop Carroll Catholic High School. It is not a far trip, but unless I time it exactly right, I will get behind multiple buses and coal trucks and hit every traffic signal between Loretto and Ebensburg. More often than not, the days I end up in the mild inconvenience of Cambria County traffic are days that I am rushing around and in a hurry. Patience behind the wheel of a car is not something I have been naturally gifted with, and the mornings when my mind is racing a million different directions, I feel like the thin veil of patience is being tested even more. As frustrating as the delays are, I believe they are God’s way of telling me to slow down, pause, and breathe. It is in that moment that I realize that Jesus is “taking the wheel” and giving me the extra time to pray, reflect, and recenter. God knows when those additional minutes are needed, and they help to put me in the right frame of mind for the day ahead.
Life moves at what feels like a thousand miles an hour, pulling us in a thousand different directions. This concept is nothing new to our modern world, as Job stated in 7:6, “My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle.” The sunup to sundown constant flurry of activities can be overwhelming. Life can start to spiral out of control and catch up with us. We need to find a slowdown in life and refocus on what is necessary and what is noise.
In many ways, this is how Lent arrives on the calendar. It feels like Christmas has just ended, and here we are on Lent’s doorstep. Everyone takes a few days over the Christmas holiday to relax and refresh. People make New Year’s Resolutions to make some life improvement, which are often gone by the end of January. The pace of activities grows, and our schedules fill up fast. Life returns to its busy cycle, but then the Church throws Lent right in our way, telling us once again to slow down!
I was contemplating this thought of “slowing down” while preparing the Basilica Choir for Ash Wednesday. The hymns for Christmas and the first six weeks of Ordinary Time have been joyful and upbeat. Ash Wednesday rolls around, and the music, readings, and overall feel of the Mass heads in a completely different direction. During Lent, I hold to the Church belief of fasting from music. The only time music is heard from an instrument at Mass in the Basilica is when it is accompanied by singing. Once the lyrics end, the music ends. This is a stark difference from my usual instrumental playing. It is difficult for me to not want to keep playing, but it is a great reminder that this time of the year is different, and the more I fast from playing, the more meaningful the joy of Easter music becomes. We increase the amount of acapella singing during Lent at the Basilica, and the hymns speak of repentance and sorrow. The refrain of Attende Domine translated to English reads “Look down, O Lord, and have mercy, for we have sinned against thee,” and the refrain to Parce Domine reads “Spare, Lord, spare your people: Be not angry with us forever.” Such a profound difference than the usual hymns of praise! These hymns and others like them help us to refocus our minds and our souls for the next forty days.
Ash Wednesday Mass has always been a favorite of mine. The tone is completely different and very somber than most Masses. The church altar is stripped of any extra decorations, and later during Holy Week, even the statues are covered over. The ashes that are placed on our foreheads are a sobering reminder of how fleeting life on earth can be, and how little time we actually have to make right with the Lord. The readings from the Book of Joel, Saint Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, and the Gospel of Matthew, all relay that now is the time to repent and reflect. God has slowed down the hectic pace of life and is encouraging us to dig down deep to grow our relationship with Him, and He gives us the roadmap to do so.
Jesus explains in the Ash Wednesday Gospel from Saint Matthew how to give alms, pray, and fast. As a young child in Catholic elementary school, I remember doing the small extra things to fulfill each of those pillars of Lent. I had a Lenten coin folder, and every day I was to put a quarter in the slot and a dollar on each Sunday. By the end of Lent, the folder would contain $14, which was then turned in to the Church and given through one of the many agencies to those in need. I struggled with trying to think of something to give up for Lent, and always looked for loopholes on how to get around the rules. For a ten-year-old, not playing video games, watching TV, or eating ice cream felt like a major sacrifice. I also remember that we had increased prayer time in school and were sent home with various Lenten prayer books to use with our families. It always felt good to donate to the poor, spend extra time in prayer, and also know that I could go six weeks without one of my favorite foods or activities, all in thanks to God.
Where do we each stand with our commitments to our adult Lenten promises of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving? The Church provides us with many opportunities and guides for prayer. Making a weekly Holy Hour is a great place to start for those looking for a new opportunity. I cherish a quiet Holy Hour that is not structured with group prayer, because it allows me to dig deep and focus my prayers and readings on my relationship with God, what He is asking of me, and what I am offering to Him. If the time for adoration at your parish does not work with your schedule, try to make time to stop into the Church when it does. Jesus is present every day, all day! Committing to an hour a week for six weeks will create a great foundation that may even continue the rest of the year. Participation in Stations of the Cross is also a worthwhile activity, allowing us to walk the way with Jesus. Again, if you cannot make the scheduled time at your parish or a neighboring parish, various forms of the stations can be found online to read or listen to on YouTube. I encourage everyone to commit 15 minutes a week to the Stations of the Cross.
Many opportunities are presented to us for almsgiving. Local food banks, such as the Dorothy Day Center at Saint Francis University, or any of the local Saint Vincent DePaul Societies, always appreciate food and financial donations. Collections are taken up at each parish for other projects to help the less fortunate. Not only do I encourage everyone to participate in at least one parish almsgiving opportunity, but also seek out a way on your own to give to the needy. Find an organization that assists people to donate your time, talent, or treasure. Make a random act of kindness donation towards someone you know that could use some help or assistance. When doing so, do so with a humble heart and mind, not seeking earthly glory or praise, but keep it between you and God, for He knows your ways!
While I still try to fast from something I enjoy or something that unhealthily occupies my life during Lent, I have begun in recent years to do something extra that adds meaning to my life. I have increased my reading of the Bible, completed small tasks that I usually put off, and made a point to do at least a little exercise a day. My friend and I joke that when it comes to exercise, that sometimes we may not do a lot, but we do something! Any one of these activities I have mentioned assist in some way for me, body, heart, mind, or soul. I have often found that when I reach Easter Sunday, I don’t feel the desire to stop doing those things but have an increased desire to continue to do them, for then it does not feel like a commitment that has to be met, but rather a choice that I have made to better myself and my relationship with God.
Without the slowdown of Lent, I doubt that I, or many others, would take the time to reflect on these important topics. Just as God conveniently places trucks, buses, or traffic lights in my way every morning, He also places Lent in our lives just at the right moment. Commit yourself to making this Lent a meaningful time of your life. For once we were dust, and to dust we shall return, and the time of repentance is closer than we may want it to be. God wants nothing more from us than our love, and the fulfillment of personal prayer, fasting, and almsgiving pleases Him more than we can imagine.
Jonathan Nagy, M.Ed., is the Dean of Students and Social Studies teacher at Bishop Carroll Catholic High School in Ebensburg. He is also the Music Director at the Basilica of Saint Michael the Archangel in Loretto.