What are good spiritual habits to develop?



Dear Father: Each year I struggle with Lent. Should I again give up something such as sweets or Facebook? However, this year I’d rather work on developing a new positive habit that I can keep doing after Lent. What are some good devotional practices to begin doing? — Anonymous

Dear Anonymous: Each year I also struggle with Lent. Moreover, much of life is a struggle. I remember a Benedictine monk with a Scottish accent proclaiming: “Life is a drudgery!” The psalmist certainly felt it, too; look at these lines:

Seventy is the sum of our years,

or eighty, if we are strong;

Most of them are toil and sorrow;

they pass quickly, and we are gone.

(Psalm 90:10)

Lent places before us the love of God shown as a passionate desire. Jesus enters willingly into our suffering with a full heart. We look at Jesus fasting in the desert and resisting the temptations of the evil one (see Matthew 4, Mark 1, and Luke 4). He knows that our fallen humanity is assailed almost daily by temptations to settle for things: pleasure, power, wealth, or fame. All of these can give us a false sense of security and freedom and, most dangerously, take the place of God. Jesus resists these temptations and relies instead on loving his Father. Jesus seeks to do his Father’s will, trusting that after the struggle of life is an abundant homecoming — the peace this world cannot give.

God desired that Jesus reveal him to us as Father, as God who is love. Jesus kept loving even during the seeming defeat of the crucifixion. So when Lent comes along, we take stock of what prevents us from loving in the way that Jesus loves and for which he gives his grace that we may enact the same love. Remember here that the content of our lives as Christians is the act of self-offering love in union with Christ empowered by the holy Eucharist, the memorial of Christ’s loving suffering and death.

Examining our lives

At the heart of Jesus’ time in the desert is a fast — self-denial. When we think of denying ourselves something during Lent it is so that we might rely more fully on God. The empty stomach of a literal fast reminds us with a little pain of the emptiness of life which can only be filled by God. Ask yourself: Is there anything that has become like an idol in my life? Anything that takes the priority away from loving God and my neighbor? Do I watch TV or play around on the internet and social media more than I pray, perform works of mercy, or engage in holy reading? Do I complain?

We have all heard the phrase “you are what you eat.” I might be unhealthy because I eat unhealthy food or I might be healthier because I eat good food. Our mind and soul also consume, and this consumption affects our mental, spiritual, emotional, and even physical health. So we ask the question: “What do I contemplate?” In the age of television and the internet, we often might view images that are tempting to the flesh, to buying what we don’t need, and to all forms of vanity.

Pray the Stations of the Cross

Lent affords us wonderful opportunities, devotionally, to observe the love of the Lord Jesus in his passion. In Lenten preaching and in the confessional, I recommend that beyond giving up candy bars and small items, we should include, if possible, as a weekly practice, the Stations of the Cross. Most parishes pray the Stations on Fridays during Lent. The Stations frame for us 14 distinct moments drawn from Scripture and Tradition in which to contemplate the Lord loving us even though we are sinners.

Looking upon him — Jesus — whom we have pierced: His suffering, rejection, unjust condemnation, beating, being spat upon, and execution is a call to know we are loved and to get going in our love for others. None of the outrages of the Passion could cause the Son of God to hate us. We are called to have our hearts purified for this same kind of loving. Often the Stations are accompanied by the singing of the Stabat Mater, and so we are invited also into the suffering of our sorrowful mother, Mary.

We can find ourselves and others in the Stations of the Cross united with Christ our head. This is important for the offering we are to make daily as we take up the cross, to love even when it is challenging and difficult. Christ reconciles us to God. We are called to serve him as he has served us, loving and helping the poor, and loving our enemies.

Let us review a few of the Stations to reinvigorate our practice of the Stations in Lent and beyond. We are given courage when we consider the times that Jesus fell. He fell not in sin, but we know his willingness to be knocked down, even in death, is our true hope of getting up, when our sins are absolved, and finally in the Resurrection at the end of time.

How could we not be moved when Jesus meets his mother? The tears of a mother are among the most powerful things on earth.

Veronica, whose name means “true image,” performs an act of mercy, wiping the stinging eyes and the bloody, sweating, spit-upon, beard-plucked face of the Lord, and there his image remained in a cloth frame. This is a kind of Station within the Stations. Here we should hear the echo of the Lord’s question in the parable:

“Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?” (Matthew 25:37-39)

The Stations contemplated can become the Stations lived. Carrying my cross does not mean suffering inactively, but loving proactively as I endure injustice from others, when I need patience with myself, and when the suffering face of Christ is before me in a needy person.


The Capuchin Franciscan priest Gereon Goldmann told a story about a parish priest living in a bombed-out village in Italy during the Second World War. The parish church was in ruins, but the priest kept in his dwelling one Station of the Cross, that of the Lord being stripped of his garments. The priest had chosen this one because he and his people felt they had lost everything. Yet in this they affirmed their faith that Christ was with them even in that depth.

Poet Countee Cullen’s poem Simon the Cyrenian Speaks meditates on reluctance freely overcome for the good of helping Christ:

It was Himself my pity bought;

I did for Christ alone

What all of Rome could not have wrought

With bruise of lash or stone.

The thought of making the Stations can be daunting. Sometimes, as happens with the Rosary, we can tell ourselves that these devotions take too long. These contemplative practices, however, are a school of prayer and Christian living that can aid us in virtue while sharpening our heart and imagination for the good work of the kingdom. When we eat the Eucharist, we eat the fruit of obedient Love that sustains us for resurrection. The Stations of the Cross support our lives of offering made in union with Mary and the saints in the heart of Jesus.

Related practices

The Stations may be prayed privately, but it is an encouragement to pray with a parish community. In some parishes a simple penitential meal proceeds the Stations of the Cross and may even involve an offering for charity. Also, congregations with Spanish-speaking Catholics often enact the Passion outdoors during Holy Week, called Semana Santa.

If you are unable to go to your parish for the Stations, meditate on a crucifix and read the Gospel passages on the Passion. Praying the sorrowful mysteries of the Rosary and litanies such as those of the Precious Blood and Sacred Heart can also enrich your contemplation.When you see a cross on a building, in church, around a neck, on a rearview mirror Rosary, or anywhere, you can pray:

We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you because by your Holy Cross you have redeemed the world.

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