By Justin McClain
The academic third quarter, for both students and teachers alike, tends to have the notorious distinction of being one of the most challenging, both mentally and academically, of the four quarters of the school year. With half of the school year behind us, both mental energy and physical energy can be at a minimum.
It is an interesting situation that, in Catholic high schools, the mental trial that comprises the third academic quarter and the spiritual desert that comprises the Lenten season have some semblance of overlap. In fact, no matter to what extent the third quarter intersects with Lent each school year, a few realities are reliably present: the Christmas break was long ago, the Easter break is not necessarily very close, the summer vacation is too distant to fathom, and end-of-the-year projects and final examinations have yet to be conquered. Depending on your geographic location, you might even be dealing with extreme cold, winter precipitation and otherwise overcast conditions. Essentially, this can be a quite miserable time of year in various regards. One could discern that the third quarter is an acceptable metaphor for adolescence: you have to survive it in order to know just how much of a feat it actually was.
At my school, Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, Maryland, which is sponsored by the Congregation of Holy Cross, founded by Blessed Father Basil Moreau, CSC, part of our charism is one that is fortunately also shared by numerous Catholic schools: forming both the minds and the hearts of our students. Therefore, efforts aimed at supporting our students’ mental sharpness while mired in the third quarter would be a bleak prospect if we did not likewise attend to the welfare of their hearts simultaneously, if not ultimately. My suggestion to you is that you do the same. Pay attention to your students’ spiritual wellbeing, in the midst of their academic concerns during this chronological intersection of the third quarter and Lent.
Here are four supportive steps to ensure that both you and your students not only mentally survive, but of more ultimate import, spiritually thrive. The first three steps (pray, fast and give) are traditional Catholic Lenten practices that have their origin in Matthew 6:1-18. The fourth step, sacrifice, is likewise an important Lenten practice and theme.
Typically, my theology students, in the midst of the third quarter, are tempted to have a certain malaise in terms of our practice of praying together at the beginning of each class session. Students seem lethargic, jaded and/or disenchanted with the totality of their academic expectations at this point in the school year. I have discovered that taking a moment to remind them of the importance of prayer is vital. Be sure to remind your own students that Jesus prayed to his Father constantly throughout the Gospels, especially in the most difficult moments: “Then [Jesus] told them a parable about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary” (Luke 18:1). Jesus prayed all of the time, but especially when he was facing the trials of his imperative life. Lent is a good opportunity to remind your students that prayer gives them the strength that they need to persevere and grow closer to the Lord in the midst of their academic pursuits.
Fasting is one of the most humbling experiences that anyone can undertake. Our very human nature leads us to not want to fast, but to feast when the opportunity arises. It is not surprising that the Latin term “festa/festus,” the origin of such English terms as “feast,” “festal” and “festive,” exhibits that the concepts of feast and celebration are directly correlated. It is our instinct to look forward to celebrating occasions, but fasting—for teachers and students alike—provides us with a reminder of several realities of life: among the key ones, that we depend entirely on God, that suffering is a necessary part of our earthly existence, and that we must undergo a trial prior to receiving our reward. When we are physically weary, as can occur within the third quarter, denying ourselves food may seem counter-intuitive, but it is a spiritually refreshing way to reorient our focus on the Kingdom of God. Such a reorientation allows for an enduring invigoration of our resolve as we march through the third quarter, underscored by the significance of Lent.
The world does not say to give; the world says to take, to collect, to receive, to want, to have more. Christ’s message is precisely the opposite: “Give, and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing will be poured into your lap. For the measure with which you measure will, in return, be measured out to you” (Luke 6:38). When you encourage your students to seek opportunities to give, whether via their time, talent, treasure, or any combination thereof, you are in turn providing them with an opportunity to better comprehend what is expected of them. This charitable expectation, based on the Lord’s assertion in Luke 6:38, is similarly reflected in a well-known excerpt from the Prayer of Saint Francis: “It is in giving that we receive.” Inspiring your students to give of themselves, through numerous capacities, will thus allow them to realize that it is in their gratuitous generosity of spirit that they will ultimately find the energy to labor for the redemptive edification of both themselves and their peers.
The etymology of the English word “sacrifice” is that it comes from the Latin for “to make holy.” It is through the sanctification of our lives, inspired by the perfectly ministerial example of Jesus Christ, that we are able to solidify the combined goals of our prayer, fasting and almsgiving in such an avenue that we better value the Lord’s prime sacrifice for us. It is vitally necessary to guide your students to reflect on the supreme sacrifice that Jesus made for them through his Passion and Crucifixion, underscored by reminding them of the connotation of the memorial sacrifice of the Holy Eucharist. In the setting of the classroom, this guidance could come in the form of lesson plans that provide meditation focused on the Paschal Mystery, e.g., leading students through the recitation of the Stations of the Cross, or perhaps having them write a reflective journal narrative detailing the day-by-day inner torment that Jesus’ eleven remaining Apostles may have experienced throughout that first Triduum and prior to the first Easter. Such endeavors will encourage your students to more fully appreciate what they have received from God’s gift of himself through Jesus’ selfless sacrifice. Invite your students to look for ways in their lives in which they can imitate Jesus’ affirmation to God the Father: “He must increase; I must decrease” (John 3:30). Fundamentally, leading students to delve into opening themselves to the wellspring of love that Jesus extended to us through his sacrificial offer of Salvation is critical to allowing them to more effectively tap into their spiritual vigor as they expectantly advance through the desert of Lent in tempered preparation for the eventual celebration of Christ’s Resurrection at Easter. To ponder briefly the message of our Holy Father Pope Francis, from within his homily for Ash Wednesday this year, the Lenten season is “a time in which we try to unite ourselves more closely to the Lord Jesus Christ, to share the mystery of his Passion and Resurrection.”
May God bless you and your students during the remainder of your Lent, as we all seek additional opportunities to pray, fast, give and otherwise sacrifice. This endeavor involves having your students sharpen their minds for the academic tasks that are on the horizon for the remainder of the school year, in order to inspire them to use their intellects for the greater glory of God. Likewise, and most monumentally, make sure to help your students understand that it is through drawing ever closer to the Lord Jesus Christ and his supremely holy will that they can expect the devotional vim for their souls to flourish through the Lord’s abundant grace, during Lent (along with the third quarter) and beyond.