Here’s an idea, give up busyness for Lent

Remember downtime? It was that thing we did before cellphones. We’d be waiting for a doctor’s appointment or for a bus, and we’d just sit there, idle.

I was waiting for a table at a restaurant the other night, and right in front of me was a family of four—mom, dad, son and grandma. Mom, Dad and son all had their cellphones out, doing whatever urgent tasks people do on their cellphones to take advantage of those few precious moments before their table for four is called, but grandma was just sitting there—watching, thinking, possibly just letting her mind wander.

One might be tempted to think that’s just what old people do. But according to an article from 2013 in Scientific American, titled “Why your brain needs more downtime,” grandma was actually engaging in an activity that healthy people do.

“Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation,” the article states, “encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life. …

“Moments of respite may even be necessary to keep one’s moral compass in working order and maintain a sense of self.

The article quotes another essay on a similar topic, one published by the New York Times the year before titled “The Busy Trap.” Essayist Tim Kreider defends habits of doing nothing, suggesting that being idle is not “an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body.”

“The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole,” he added.

But isn’t idleness the devil’s playground? Yes, it can be, when it becomes one’s primary mode of being. But I think the authors quoted above aren’t advocating so much a life of idleness, as they are suggesting that lives that are spent constantly “doing” something are out of balance.

In favor of being “busy” doing stuff all the time, we have lost touch with the need to take a break, disconnect, and just rest. And all of that unbridled activity hurts more than just our mental processes, it hurts our relationships. If we are always busy, when do we have for others?

Let’s go back to the example of the family waiting for a table. Instead of taking advantage of valuable time together to connect and share, they were ignoring each other. Grandma was the only one showing any availability for engaging in conversation, but she was alone.

Taking this one step further: If we are too busy to talk to the people right in front of us, how do we expect to have any time to talk to Our Father in Heaven?

How often do we say that we would love to pray more, or go to daily Mass, but we are just too busy? We opt for “busyness” over moments of prayer—the perennial problem of choosing to be Martha over Mary.

Maybe this Lent we decide to break the cycle. Maybe we opt to “not do” over “do.”

One practical suggestion would be to take a page out of grandma’s playbook and put our cellphones away for a little bit each day, and just sit and look. Maybe we do this in the chapel and spend some time just sitting with God. Go ahead, your Facebook friends will wait.

COMING UP: Encounter God’s Word in the desert

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We are about to begin Lent, the solemn season in which the Church unites herself to what the Catechism calls “the mystery of Jesus in the desert” (#540). As we approach this season of preparation, I would like to draw your attention to Pope Francis’ advice in his Lenten Message to immerse yourself in God’s word, which sustains us in times of temptation and helps us hear God’s voice more clearly.

In his Tractates on the First Letter of John, St. Augustine provides us with an analogy that is helpful for understanding how God works in desolate times. He writes, “Suppose you are going to fill some holder or container, and you know you will be given a large amount. Then you set about stretching your sack or wineskin or whatever it is. Why? Because you know the quantity you will have to put in it and your eyes tell you there is not enough room. By stretching it, therefore, you increase the capacity of the sack, and this is how God deals with us. Simply by making us wait he increases our desire, which in turn enlarges the capacity of our soul, making it able to receive what is to be given to us” (emphasis added).

The spiritual life is about opening our hearts to receive the love, compassion and mercy of the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. When we encounter trials in our spiritual life, God is enlarging the capacity of our hearts and souls to receive more. 

After Jesus had spent 40 days and nights fasting and praying in the desert, he responded to Satan’s temptations by placing his trust in God the Father, underscoring his commitment with Scripture. The Evil One tried three ways to undermine his trust in the Father, and he often uses these same temptations on us. First, he appealed to Jesus’ appetites. When that didn’t work, Satan tried to sow doubt about the Father’s care for him. And finally, he tried to lure him with promises of power and splendor. With each temptation, Jesus recalled the Scriptures: ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God’; ‘You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test’; and ‘The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve’ (Cf. Mt. 4:4-10).

Using these Scripture passages, Jesus reaffirmed his trust in God the Father, who had provided for him in the desert and had done so from eternity. 

Pope Francis also recounts this reality in his 2017 Lenten message, which focuses on the Gospel story of the poor man Lazarus. This impoverished man who was ignored by a rich man, even though he was lying prostrate on rich man’s doorstep because of weakness and hunger. The Holy Father emphasizes that when we open our hearts to God’s word, we also open are hearts to our neighbor, as we see Jesus in every human being no matter what their condition. For the rich man, he says, “the root of all his ills was the failure to heed God’s word” (Lenten Message 2017).

During Lent, we commit to increased prayer, fasting and almsgiving, but this year I encourage you to also steep yourself in God’s word. As we saw in the desert and read in the book of Hebrews, God’s word is “living and effective … and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). Through God’s word we are able to recognize others as a gift and remain grounded in the fact that we rely on God for every breath, for every day that we are alive and for the gift of eternal life.

I encourage you to set aside 15 minutes of quiet prayer with one or two of the Gospels during the course of Lent. Once you have chosen the Gospel you want to read, read a chapter a day. Begin with prayer to the Holy Spirit, pray for receptivity to the Word, for understanding, knowledge and wisdom and then ask the Lord to let the Word speak to your heart. Following these preparations, prayerfully read the chapter. Once you are finished, listen for where the Word moved your heart.

The more firmly our lives are grounded in Scripture, the more fully will we begin to resemble the beloved Son who was and is the living Word made flesh. As Jesus relied upon the promises of the Father to combat the temptations of the Enemy, we too, may rest with confidence in God’s provision for us. And when we find ourselves in difficult moments, when the wineskins of our hearts and souls are stretched beyond the point of comfort, we can be confident in his plan for our lives, recalling that when he asks much, it is because he intends to give much more.

Through your encounter with God’s word this Lent, may God the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit enliven your hearts and strengthen you in faith, helping you seek the will of the Father, and bringing you to the celebration of the Resurrection with greater joy.