How a Daily Journaling Practice Transformed My Lent
Last year, I committed to maintaining a daily prayer practice during Lent, and though it wasn’t an ideal year for something like this (the coronavirus pandemic was raging), I managed to sustain it — and I’m happy I did. Here’s my story of how it went and how it changed me, in hopes that it encourages you to choose and keep a practice of your own this year — no matter your history with Lent.
Growing up in a Catholic family, we observed Lent and I always gave something up. But as I grew up, I sort of fell away from all of that and its connection to Easter — I would forget to commit to Lent or fail to follow through. Easter still was nice to celebrate, but I had lost that feeling of preparation and waiting that made it special to me as a kid.
So this year, I decided to take advantage of an opportunity to commit to a daily prayer practice. I found a source for brief reflection prompts, which helped as I was starting from no formal prayer practice at all. I was still wary, though, of my ability to follow through. Six weeks seemed like a long time to keep up with something every day when I’d rarely done anything for more than a week. But I also knew this would be a chance to dig a little deeper and perhaps build a helpful habit that lasted beyond Easter.
Luckily, getting started was easier than I thought it would be. The prompts I used took about five minutes to reflect on every day. They began with questions that prompted self-examination and then asked me to consider putting faith into action. I was challenged by a deeper call to action that let my inner realizations translate to living life differently.
This idea of living life differently was something I’d been missing. I can get wrapped up in my own struggles to the point of having blinders to others in need. It turns out that my navel-gazing tendency is to reflect endlessly on my own journey of personal change, but to rarely channel that energy to social action outside my circle of friends and family. I was embarrassed to admit that. But I knew that this painful honesty was the only way I could really grow.
I remember the first time — it was during the second week — I faced a prompt about DOING something with my realizations and reflections. It felt awkward. I was stumped at first. But once I took action and did something, it became more natural.
This practice pushed me to broaden my lens even when life’s hurdles tempted me to think of myself first. Midway through Lent, the COVID-19 pandemic escalated across the globe. My job disappeared overnight, grocery store supplies dwindled, the news blared tragedy, and hand sanitizer became equivalent to liquid gold. Narrow-minded survival instincts and feelings of scarcity crept in. But the continual pushes from the journal prompts called me to be of service to others instead of wallowing in my own circumstances.
The prompts helped me reach out to friends in need, express gratitude to formative people in my life, serve people around me in some way, donate to charities, and follow social media accounts that amplified my awareness of social injustices. Over time, I developed my muscles of taking action to make change.
During the week I lost my job, a prompt about gratitude challenged me to write down the ways that I was being cared for by God. I initially had no idea what to write, as the thoughts of “what-do-I-do-now” swirled in the background of my mind. I carried this question with me to ponder throughout the day. Later on, something clicked. The abundance of what I DID still have flooded through.
I had a powerful moment that night as I looked back on the past month. I saw that this very practice of praying was providing for me — just not in the way I had planned. In the first week, I had identified my intentions for this time to grow in “gratitude and realizing my blessings.” I had also written that I desired to be more generous, more adaptable to uncertainty, and better at trusting in God. I realized that this pandemic was my chance to put those intentions to the test.
And so I continued the daily practice to both look inward with look outward to extend myself to others. When Easter came around, it felt more meaningful than in years past. In the past, Easter marked the time after which I could resume the things I gave up during Lent. It was different this time — Easter was not the end of my practice. I had cultivated attitudes to inform my actions every day going forward.
My Lenten practice cultivated a mindset of service, prayer, and gratitude that was strong enough to last through some really hard weeks. I was lucky to have solidified my practice of prayer by investing in it in the first weeks of Lent — I noticed the benefits as I navigated the challenges of a move abroad and then weathered the pandemic. There were times when my daily journaling felt like one more thing to do as life seemed to fall apart. Most often, though, I found that things got calmer and easier to manage because I was engaged in this practice, not in spite of it.
I have continued to integrate outreach and action into my spiritual life now that Lent is over. It’s been nearly two months and I have continued to practice donating; attending Sunday Mass; offering acts of kindness for friends and family outside of my norm; activism; and cultivating daily gratitude.
My Lenten practice brought me a sense of belonging to something bigger than myself. I feel more aware of my interconnection with God, fellow human beings, and the planet. I’ve felt more aware of all that is going right in my life and more conscious of the everyday ways I can give back and be a force for good. While I’ve still had moments of being overly wrapped up in my little world, I have more tools now to balance my energy, get out of my head, and tune in to what’s beyond my life and even my lifetime.
Your Lenten practice can be an anchor, too, for whatever life will bring your way these next several weeks. Don’t wait to start your Lenten practice until the right time. Don’t save it for next year when things are calmer, for the year when you have less going on. I think that this is the crux of spiritual life — we’re meant to develop our practices not only for when things are easy, but also for when they’re hard. In fact, it’s wise to invest in them while you can so that you have a resource to help you when you need it most.