Remember man that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.
With those words, we began the season of Lent this morning. Today, Ash Wednesday, is a day of fasting and abstaining from meat. Over the next forty days, we will try to increase our spirit of penance not only by giving up things that are bad for us (alcohol, candy), but also things that are good (for me, it's switching from whole bean coffee to the stuff that comes in a can). We also try to do more spiritual and corporal works of mercy, increase our almsgiving (a good use for the beer, candy, and coffee money saved), and, above all, take better care of our spiritual life and family relationships.
It's kind of strange, but I've grown to appreciate Lent a lot more since moving to the farm. Agriculture is all about following the cycles of nature and the seasons; there is a time for planting, a time for harvesting, a time for new life to be born or to hatch, a time for livestock to be butchered---and a time for everything to slow down, regroup, and take a long rest. The goats don't give milk all year. The chickens and ducks don't lay eggs all year. The grape vines go dormant. The vegetable garden goes barren and is covered with snow. All of these things happen so the animals and plants and soil can take a break from "growing on the outside" and rededicate themselves to "growing on the inside."
We humans are no different. We need a season where we step back, put aside some of the things we enjoy, and take some time to "grow on the inside." That's what we'll be doing, starting today, and starting by remembering that we are dust---no different from the dust outside in our vegetable garden, covered with snow. By putting aside the things that aren't so important, we'll hopefully get a better grasp on the things that are important---and in the process learn to rededicate ourselves all the better to those more important things.
For those who are interested in going deeper into a life of prayer this Lent, a book I've found to be extremely helpful is Volume II of In Conversation with God. There is a short chapter, divided into three sub-sections, for each day of Lent and Eastertide. The three sub-sections revolve around the day's central theme, usually drawn from that day's Mass readings. It is written with the lay person in mind, with a practical focus on how we can better live out the faith in the middle of the world. That's why I've found that the books in this series (and there are seven of them, covering the entire year) provide such excellent material for prayer: they're not written for eighteenth century cloistered nuns---they're written for us.
What many people do is spend five minutes slowly reading the first subsection, five minutes turning that material over in their heads, five minutes reading the next subsection, and so on for a half hour.
But there are no hard and fast rules. The important thing is, whatever you do this Lent, I hope you find something that helps you grow on the inside.