This time tomorrow, it will be Ash Wednesday, and therefore the start of Lent. While Lent is a french word meaning “slow” – it’s also the word we use to describe the 40 days which make up the Church’s annual retreat. As a youth minister, I always considered retreats to be the best thing we did – the chance to get away with an incredible group of young people: playing crazy games, being sleep deprived, eating extremely well… and ultimately, to have an intensive experience of God. On the one hand – excepting the food and games – Lent is supposed to offer a similar experience. The question is, how do we get there?
For every retreat I’ve led since I became a parish youth minister in 2002 (and became responsible for planning all the details of a retreat), I learned a few ingredients that often made the difference between our retreats being a success and being a flop… four of them may come in handy to help you get more out of your Lent.
1) Plan ahead: Even though I spent the years prior to my first youth ministry job running NET-style retreat teams, it was clear from the outset we couldn’t just show up and make a retreat work well. By my last year in youth ministry, my core team and I were looking ahead to the retreat months ahead, and intensively working on it about 6 weeks prior to the retreat.
When it comes to Lent, we know when it starts: Ash Wednesday. If you just show up Wednesday morningand assume that Lent will take care of itself, then there’s a good chance you’re not going to experience much (or grow much) as a result of your Lenten discipline. Even though it may be like cramming for an exam, take some time tonight to think about what you’re going to do for Lent. (Hint: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are a good place to start!)
2)Location, Location, Location: I was very fortunate to discover a couple ideal locations for retreats very early on in my time working in the parishes. I took my youth to one of the local diocesan camps (I found three within a couple hours’ drive from my parish) or to a retreat house up in Hinton. Each place had specific qualities that made it a great place for a weekend away – but what all of them had in common was that it was AWAY. It involved taking my youth out of their element for a weekend.
While it might sound intriguing to move out for the forty days we’ll be journeying through Lent, I invite you to consider two simpler ideas
1) If you’re not a regular churchgoer… start going for Lent. The Church has something to offer you: a community that’s on the same journey as you are, and there is perhaps no more appropriate time to come back to Church than in the season we are all being invited to turn back. If you are a regular Churchgoer… take a look at the time you’re spending there. Do you show up late and/or leave early? Is there room for a little more (youth group, weekly adoration, a weekday Mass) – to ensure that you’re getting into the right space?
2) Fr. Mike (Catfish) Mireau argued that “religion needs a lab.” In other words, our faith needs to be be put into practice: we need experiences of prayer, of retreat, and of service. To make the most of Lent, you need to put yourself into a position where you can do more than just read about or talk about your faith. You need to get out and experience it – go serve at the Marian Center, make a specific holy space in your room/house where you can pray, or attend a youth retreat/rally/parish mission. Make a point of getting out of your comfort zone… because you’ll put yourself in a position to encounter God.
3) The best advertisement is someone who has been there before: I have never been a big believer in handing out a form and hoping for the best. Youth who’ve been in my parishes and schools know this: I tend to be relentless when trying to get people to come on a youth retreat or rally… sometimes sending them home with five or six forms over a two week period to ensure that they are coming along. What I noticed was once someone attended a retreat… they became my best cheerleaders, telling their peers (and at times anyone who would listen) what a worthwhile experience a youth retreat could be.
For Lent, I’m suggesting you seek out a “cheerleader” for your spiritual life. It can be a less formal relationship with someone whose faith you admire, or it can be a moment to seek out spiritual director -a guide for your soul, whose task it is to help you sift through all the noise to hear and obey God’s voice- something I’ve taken advantage of since I was 19. It’s something I strongly recommend, finding someone who can challenge and encourage you to become the man or woman God made you to be.
4) Get out of the way: Aside from the infamous “Spam Olympics” my most memorable recollections of youth retreats surrounded two moments I had very little influence over: Reconciliation & Adoration. Watching teens walk out of confession, having left behind their worst choices and deepest regrets, carrying with them the love and mercy of God is something I will never forget. With that weight taken off, the high point of the retreat was generally Saturday night, when we’d bring out the Eucharist for a time of Adoration… and the grace in the room was almost palpable. We tried mixing things up one year and offering prayer teams – I was afraid the youth were going to revolt. This experience was so valuable to them we never neglected it again.
What Reconciliation & Adoration have in common is that they are both completely about Jesus. They are most effective when people like me get out of the way and let Jesus work in the hearts of those attending the retreat. Lent is much the same way- and the challenge to each of us always comes back to whether or not we can get out of the way and make room for Him to work in our hearts.
Lent is the Church’s annual retreat, and while most people’s experiences of these 40 days doesn’t, at first glance, match up to the experience of a weekend youth retreat. Even though, by design, the intensity of Lent won’t match a weekend retreat – the fruit of this Lenten retreat has the potential to surpass the fruit of even the most powerful weekend… because you have the chance to build a habit alongside whatever experience of faith God chooses to grant you.