40 days of Lent is just a start

We’re in the home stretch. So how are things with your soul?

We’ve come halfway through Lent. (Actually, March 11 is the midpoint of Lent, but the church celebrates that on the following Sunday, Laetare Sunday. (Laetare is a Latin word for “rejoicing.”) That’s why the vestments are a different, rosy-pink color.

This Sunday is also the middle of three Sundays in Lent when those about to enter the church at the Easter Vigil (candidates and catechumens) undergo the “scrutinies.” “The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults” (RCIA) explains the scrutinies as “rites for self-searching and repentance … meant to uncover, and then heal all that is weak, defective or sinful in the hearts of the elect; to bring out, then strengthen all that is upright, strong and good” (n. 141).

The scrutinies are specifically for those entering the church — which is why the associated Sunday readings are not used in parishes without RCIA candidates. However, Lent is when we all examine our relationship with God and each other. Lent reminds us to work at healing what is “weak, defective or sinful” in our hearts and souls. So, how are you doing?

Most people are familiar with “giving up something” for Lent. As children, that may have been candy. As adults, it might have matured into giving up TV or unnecessary shopping. When we fast on Fridays, the money not spent on food is meant for the poor. Catholic Relief Services’ Rice Bowls remind us of that.

But these acts can become routine and lose their soul-strengthening aspects. That’s the idea behind a spiritual program for men, called Exodus 90, started by a priest in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., in 2015.

Fr. Brian Doerrhad noticed that seminarians were getting stale in their religious habits. So he began what some call “spiritual boot camp.” It lasts 90 days because, as its website exodus90.com notes, that is how long it takes to break habits. The website explains, “Exodus 90 is a 90-day spiritual exercise for men based on three pillars: prayer, asceticism and fraternity.”

Over 30,000 laymen, priests and bishops in 65 countries have since joined Exodus90. The tough parts include cold showers, intense exercise and lots of “giving up:” video games and computer use, except for work, study and paying bills. For 90 days.

Lent is only 40 days. So if you started new spiritual habits for Lent, you aren’t halfway through ingraining them.

And if you didn’t really start yet, what type of asceticism could you set for yourself, to bring you closer to Jesus? Even after Easter. This 90-day spiritual or physical regimen can be for anyone, not just men. Remember, it has to be a little tough, but it’s meant to change your life — body and soul.

RCIA candidates spend Lent — and several months before — exploring faith history, origins of sacraments, reading the Bible and in prayer. It takes work to become a practicing Catholic.

That’s why RCIA doesn’t end at Easter. It enters a period called mystagogy. This Greek word means “learning the mysteries,” getting to know God better. Mystagogy is like getting the feel of the road, or having “your temps” for driving the road to full discipleship. Mystagogy formally lasts until Pentecost, but, in fact, it lasts longer.

Like all aspects of discipleship, it’s lifelong. And while parts might seem ascetic, even painful — like a cold shower on a winter morning or kneeling on a hard floor before that first coffee — it can also lead to joy. 

As Pope Francis asked on Ash Wednesday 2019, “Is it difficult to live as he asks? Yes, it is difficult, but it leads us to our goal. Lent shows us this. It begins with the ashes, but eventually leads us to the fire of Easter night; … If we, with our weaknesses, return to the Lord, if we take the path of love, then we will embrace the life that never ends. And surely we will be full of joy.”

That’s what our journey to the cross means for us. So, how is it going for you?