My theory about Lent is that this observance is not so much a time for taking up impressive spiritual exercises in order to abandon them as soon as the Lenten Observance is over. It is even less about getting proper exercise, giving up chocolate, and losing weight - even pagans do more than this. Instead, Lent is about restoring the devotion to the Lord we ought to have all year round.
The Lord has given Himself to us completely, and Lent is remembering this exquisite gift and pondering the return we ought to make with the whole of our lives. How can we, in the face of His excessive love for us, do anything other than renounce ourselves, take up our Cross and follow in the footsteps of our Crucified God? Yet there is a resistance in our hearts, a lack of gratitude, something deep inside that is repulsed by the goodness of the Lord.
Why do we fall out of the beatitude that Christ proclaims the sorrowing know? The world is filled with all kinds of challenges and trials. Things happen in life that test us and even discourage us. We also do things that cast a shadow over the discipline of the Christian life we ought to observe.
In the midst of this discouragement, Christ is walking along side of us -- He never abandons those He loves. As He walks with us, He asks us questions. He is concerned about our direction and about the heaviness in our hearts. Lent is a time to listen to His questions.
This can mean to read and to re-read the Gospels. Such a lectio divina involves concentrating on passages with all the force of our mind while attending to the presence of the Lord with all the love of our hearts.
Really listening to the Lord involves real fasting - from food to the point that we really feel hungry, to the point that we are in touch with our own hunger and thirst for justice.
Listening to the Lord's questions can also mean going to daily Mass, taking time to ponder the readings, devoutly lifting up our hearts and entering with our lives into His great prayer before the Father.
Listening means going out and finding my neighbors in their need and loneliness and making sure that they feel loved (it is never enough to just tell them so - love needs to be felt). When we let ourselves be inconvenienced by those who most need us (true love is never convenient or easy), Christ speaks through them into our own poverty with a beautiful eloquence.
Such listening can also mean entering into a deeper silence, one which is vulnerable to wonder and awe, and inclines one's whole being to adoration - it culminates in compunction and awareness of one's own need for mercy.
The works of mercy, the fasting and the prayers that we take up for these Forty Days are meant to help us face a spiritual sluggishness that constantly creeps up in our lives to weigh us down. These spiritual exercises of love help us recognize the Face of Christ who gazes on us in love. When we welcome His words, our hearts burn with the holy sorrow and secret joy of repentance. In his eyes, we find the gift of tears which is a beatitude, the hope that lives unvanquished.