When Lent is Boot Camp…

There are many ways to envision the Lenten journey… Over the years, one of the most consistent images I have encountered to describe the Lenten journey is that of something akin to Boot Camp. If the majority of people reading this are like the author, a civilian, then most of us have no real experience of what Boot Camp is really like. Fraternity and sorority members have pledged their fraternities and sororities, yet pledging is a far cry from boot camp. In the face of such ignorance, my best guess is that the goals of Boot Camp are twofold: 1) to learn and become proficient at the basic military skills necessary to be a soldier 2) to learn about and adopt as one’s own, the military life as a soldier. If I’m even close to correct, then I believe the common image of the Lenten journey as Boot Camp is very much correct!!!

As Lenten boot camps go, I guess you can break them down into generally two categories: spiritual boot camps or moral boot camps.

In the standard moral Lenten boot camp, the focus is generally on giving up a specific sin or bad habit – something that we shouldn’t be doing anyway – like eating sweets, cursing or making unnecessary purchases, watching excessive t.v,, etc.. Unfortunately with this Lenten program, it is often too easy to forget to replace our sinful sacrifice with a healthy alternative! Thus, we find ourselves overly focusing on the loss and suffering (which some say is very Catholic ha, ha!) without refocusing that energy into creating a healthy alternative. Without a healthy alternative to build new virtue/character that replaces the old vice, moral Lents can often be in danger of either ending in an eventual failure or with one just “holding out until crossing the Easter finish line,” eagerly ready to return to old ways. However…please, don’t be dismayed if you are attempting this kind of Lent! Consider adding a healthy alternative to balance your sinful sacrifice. By the power of God’s grace coupled with both individual human grit and the prayers of Christians worldwide, people have been miraculously blessed during this holy time of the year!!! Remember, we simply can’t out work God when it comes to our salvation!

In spiritual Lenten boot camps, the focus is generally on things like increasing or integrating prayer throughout the day, reading more Scripture, attending an extra Mass or two throughout the week, daily spiritual reading or journaling, etc. One positive aspect of this kind of boot camp is that is seems to focus more on adding and building virtue/character than on the negative like eradicating bad habits and vices. On the surface this does appears much easier than the moral boot camp, yet upon further reflection I beg to differ…

…Ask anyone who has ever tried to regularly get up forty minutes early to pray daily how easy that was and how long it lasted… Even those who have established the practice for decades and can testify to its benefits, will share how they STILL sometimes find those initial waking moments barraged with arguments about why they should not pray, this morning, or what’s worse, that d e e p anti God feeling… Anyone who has started to consistently, humbly and prayerfully read the Bible knows, or has found out that, they will be changed –it is impossible not be! Grappling with these changes can be very difficult, maybe even life changing… imagine hearing God’s invitation to do the unthinkable like dropping all and going into a ministry?   If you still want to say the spiritual boot camp is easier, okay, let’s just agree to disagree. But at least let us agree that the spiritual boot camp has the potential to be much scarier!

Some Lenten programs can easily fall into both categories, for instance, a Lent focusing specifically on performing concrete acts of charity and service in the community, especially if it is performed in a prayerful spirit and real time and economic sacrifices are required. If we really examine it closely, most Lenten programs will force us to integrate and utilize aspects of both boot camps if we are to really “do Lent right.” Both boot camps have long histories among the saints, whose lives as models reveal to us how God will eventually lead us, by grace, to travel both roads in this journey.

If this year’s Lent will be a boot camp experience for you, may the Saints hold you in their prayers, as we will hear at Strugglin’catholic.com.

Applying the military boot camp’s goals to your present quest, we pray that in your spiritual boot camp… 1) You learn about and become proficient at the basic spiritual skills of prayer, mortification/asceticism, worship, etc. that are necessary for you now to grow in accordance with God’s will and in holiness   2) You will learn anew and/or re-adopt and recommit to life as a Christian disciple and the Jesus’ Cross. As a civilian is transformed into a soldier, may your boot camp continue and jumpstart, by grace, your transformation from a good person into a truly holy saint of God.

Author: P. J. West, Jr.

Paul J. West Jr. is a cradle Catholic and native Chicagoan who has ministered in Catholic Schools, parishes and hospitals for over two decades. His current ministries are focused on both hospital chaplaincy and writing. Prior to this, he ministered as an educator for almost twenty five years teaching religion, scripture, philosophy and ethics at four Chicago area high schools and adults at the Chicago Catholic Scripture School. His parish ministry has included preaching, teaching, writing and serving as a Eucharistic minister. Mr. West, who is native south sider, has been married for almost 30 years to Dr. Joy West. They have raised four beautiful daughters who are all hardcore Bears and White Sox fans!!!!

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