by Jeff Young
For me, one of the most beautiful aspects of being Catholic is celebrating the liturgical seasons: Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, and Ordinary Time. There’s something so simple, so … human about this. The seasons ground us to the earth, to nature, while directing our eyes and hearts to heaven. We surrender to God’s gracious ordaining as season leads to season, allowing the grace of each to catch our hearts and color them with the enduring hues of our faith: brushstrokes of the life of Jesus taking hold on the canvas of my life and yours. The expectant longing of Advent. The glorious silence of Christmas, filled with unexpected awe. The quiet simplicity of Lent, which eventually yields to the thunderous, earth-shaking glory of the Resurrection and the empty tomb.
There’s something special for us even in the seemingly mundane plodding of Ordinary Time. And we are invited, year after year, to utter our own fiat, our own acceptance of the given season in which we find ourselves. But, of all the seasons, the quiet simplicity of Lent has fascinated me the most. I’m not altogether sure why it has. Maybe it’s because ever since my teenage years, I have sensed a disparity between our culture at large and the simple message of Gospels. Maybe it’s because one of the first saintly friends I made after a profound conversion experience at the age of 16 was St. Francis of Assisi, a saint who embodied a penitential life. Maybe it’s because deep down I know my own propensity to overdo everything, and I sense that there is something in the simplicity of Lent that I need. More likely, it’s a combination of all the above. I admit that my childhood and early teenage experience of Lent was far from penitential.
What I remember most is the Friday feasts of fried catfish and fried shrimp. And ketchup, lots of ketchup. As a kid, I doused almost all my food in ketchup (one habit I am certainly grateful that I outgrew). Things changed after that conversion experience. In a moment, I knew that I knew that I knew that Jesus was real, that he knew me, and that he loved me. And if Jesus was real, then this Catholic stuff was real, too. After that encounter, I longed to pray. I wanted to be close to Jesus. I wanted to do penance. I wanted to fast. Especially during Lent. I remember one Lent when I was 16 or 17, I fasted on bread and water every Friday. It was hard. It was difficult, especially when everybody else in my world was enjoying the fried shrimp and catfish. But I did it, and I think it mattered. It was important for me. I did the same thing for Lent when I was 24, adding Wednesday as a fast day, too. I didn’t make a big deal out of it to others, and I didn’t believe I had to do it to make God love me. I saw it as an invitation from Jesus, who talked about fasting in the Gospels. It sounded like something we were supposed to do. “Supposed to” in the sense that it’s good for us because that’s how God made us. Fasting is actually good for us. I remember hearing about the Orthodox Christians and how strict their Lenten fasting was. I envied them. I was convinced I couldn’t do it, but I envied them. That fascination with Lenten penitential practices, especially fasting, remained with me. And for Lent 2018, at 47 years of age, I finally did “do Lent” in a radical way like the Orthodox do. I responded to an invitation from Jesus. It was radical, and it turned out to be one of the most impactful Lents of my life. I’m sharing this with you now because Lent starts at the end of this month. It’s another invitation, another opportunity to move closer to Jesus through the quiet and simplicity of Lent. Not everyone is called to fast in a radical way. But we are all called to fast in some way, and we are all called to quiet prayer. It’s an invitation — one that can radically change our lives.
I wanted to be close to Jesus. Especially during Lent
Lent as a young adult or a single person is not the same as Lent as a husband and father. Over the years we have taken many different approaches to Lent as a family, but one of our most consistent practices has been to gather around the table on Friday evenings for a very simple meal, usually soup and maybe some fresh bread. We begin with prayer before the meal, and during the meal we might have a reading from the daily Mass or a Lenten meditation that we read and discuss. Following supper, we quietly do the dishes together and then retire to the living room for a family Rosary. No TV. No phones. No music. We reserve those Friday nights for quiet: prayer, reading, and just being together. The lentil soup below is super easy to make, and it’s full of flavor. Lentils are small, and they take very little time to cook. Nutritionally, they also pack a punch. This version of the soup has a Lebanese flare to it, one that my family appreciates. I list the Lebanese spices as optional. You are certainly free to play around with the spices to find something that works for your family.