I know we priests try to inspire others by our example, our homilies, and the way we live our lives. What you may not realize is just how much you and the people in our parishes inspire us.
Let me give you one simple example from my own life. When I celebrate Sunday Mass and people actively participate with enthusiastic responses and loud singing, it raises my own prayerfulness and makes me want to celebrate that gift of Eucharist even more. I’m ready to pray because I sense the people in the pews are ready to pray.
This applies just as much or even more in Lent. I’ve been inspired by people I know whose lives were changed during this holy season.
I know many people who go to Mass more often during Lent, sometimes daily. When Lent ends, they keep going. It’s amazing to see. I would venture to say that a high percentage of people who attend daily Mass began to do so during Lent. What starts as a Lenten sacrifice becomes such an important part of their lives that they continue going to daily Mass as much as possible. I think of a few couples at St. Bartholomew’s, the parish where I live, who inspire me right now by what they’ve done since last Lent. They began to go to Mass then and haven’t stopped since.
I see it in other religious practices as well. People begin to pray the Stations of the Cross, spend time in Adoration, find more quiet prayer time throughout the week, and so on. Once again, these practices often begin during Lent and then keep going. In those six weeks of preparation, habits are formed that can last the rest of their lives.
I know others who become more involved with the Church during Lent. They take part in a Lenten series or offer their help on a parish committee or with a ministry. From that point on, they are attracted to more and more opportunities to grow in their faith with Sunday Mass as well as being part of the community we call the Church.
A 2009 study in Europe showed that it takes anywhere from 18 to 254 days to form a new habit, with the average being 66 days. Lent is 46 days (including Sundays), so it’s at least enough time to start on a good new habit if not form one completely.
It’s similar to muscle memory. I’ve played tennis most of my life, and I would guess you need to hit a ball a few thousand times before you’ve created a new muscle memory. I’m not a golfer, but I’ve read that it takes approximately 10,000 practice shots for a swing adjustment to really take hold and become second nature.
I think we develop our spiritual muscle memory in Lent. We commit to something and do our best to stay with it for six weeks, which is often enough time for our Lenten discipline to become a permanent and important part of our lives.
I see this all the time with our volunteers at Catholic Charities, and not just during Lent. Many people get involved in something simple like one of our food programs, and then their involvement grows and grows and grows. Many of our leading volunteers started this way.
I often say to just “put your toe in the water.” Start with something simple, manageable and doable. I think you’ll find that first step naturally turns into more hours of service and commitment to a spiritual discipline, serving a particular population or meeting a critical need.
Let’s all work on our spiritual muscle memory this Lent. Where can you say “yes” to God, or even “I’ll try”? God can work with a yes, no matter how small it is. God can even work with a maybe. And you may begin something that becomes an important part of your spiritual growth now and for the rest of your life.
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