How to Have a Great Lent (Even If You’re Really Dreading It)
Perusing social media over the past few days, I've seen people getting geared up for Lent. People are asking others what they might be giving up for Lent or even crowdsourcing ideas of what they should give up. In the school attached to the parish I am assigned to I went into one of the classrooms the other day and the kids were asking me what I, as a priest, was going to be giving up for Lent. I told them the truth, I hadn’t yet decided. In the past I’ve given up dessert, I’ve given up meat, I’ve given up the internet one disastrous year among other things.
If the crowds at Ash Wednesday Masses tell us anything, it is that Lent is a powerful season for people; one that speaks to them on a level they might not even understand. But, some people don’t like Lent, they see it as a drag and a drudgery. Maybe it’s because, in the past, they may have felt bad or even guilty for choosing something to give up and then ended up indulging in that thing within just a couple days. Or maybe they just don’t see the point of giving something up. Or maybe they simply have their own reason for not liking Lent, for not being able to dive into the season.
With that in mind, here is my biggest suggestion to those people, and actually to everybody who will be entering Lent. Do it all, and keep doing it even when you fail at it. So often when we think about Lent, or talk to others about Lent, we focus on what we will be giving up. But this is just one of the three things we are called to do during Lent. The three things the Church asks us to do during Lent are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Let’s look at all three of these things.
Pray Without Ceasing
First off, prayer. We are called to pray at all times, during all seasons, but during Lent we are asked to dive deeper into prayer. So, for this Lent think of something you can do in this category. What kind of prayer habit can you adapt for your life? Perhaps it is a daily rosary -- or even just a decade a day. Perhaps you add in a time of prayer as a family at night before you go to bed. Maybe you make some plan to read scripture every day. Whatever you do, DO SOMETHING! Do something, but make it actually doable. If you don’t have a strong prayer life right now, don’t think that you can start from zero and instantly be able to do multiple holy hours a day complete with the entire Liturgy of the Hours. But, you can certainly do 10 minutes a day.
Fasting From Food and More
Secondly, fasting. This takes on two different forms- the required fasting and abstaining on particular days and then the self-selected fasting every day during Lent. We’ll discuss both of them. First, the required fasting. Except for the young, elderly, and those with health conditions that make it dangerous to do so, we are all supposed to fast on two particular days during Lent. On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday we are to eat only one full meal and then two snacks that are each smaller than a half meal as well as abstain from meat on these days. This can be quite difficult for some, and may cause some kind of physical discomfort; but this is the point. By feeling hunger we are supposed to remind ourselves of the hunger we should have for Christ. So don’t skimp on this, and don’t look for the loopholes to get out of entering into this practice. In addition to Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, we are supposed to abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent. Again, enter into this; don’t look for the loophole. Don’t give up the ground beef just so you can have a double serving of lobster. But the final type of fasting is the one that gets most of the press.
Giving up something for Lent can be hard, and it should be. Hard, but doable. And honestly, it should be something good. Giving up a vice or some kind of sin is not what we should be giving up. The sacrifice of something that is a good thing is the point. Fasting is supposed to be temporary. The Church’s calendar calls us to seasons of fasting and feasting. In order to do this, we should fast from things that are good. By giving it up as a sacrifice we acknowledge the inherent goodness of the thing. But the key thing is to find something to give up, and GIVE IT UP!
Caring For The Poor
The third and final thing we are asked to do during Lent is almsgiving. Giving to the poor is as important as prayer and fasting. Find some way in which you can give to the poor consistently throughout Lent. Collecting your spare change each night is a small way you can do this. Finding some way in which we can give actual money, or our time, or our talents to aid the poor is not a luxury; it is a requirement of our faith. So, just like prayer and fasting- do it!
Forgive Yourself When You Mess Up
And the final piece of advice for having a good lent: even if you hate lent, keep at it. Even if you indulge in what you gave up. Even if you find that you missed a day of your prayer, even if you find you have gone a few days without giving to the poor in some way, keep at it. Failing once is not the end of Lent, it merely serves as a time to recommit yourself to the practices of Lent. Be willing to forgive yourself. God does.
So, this Lent, do all of it. Don’t just dip your toes in the water, jump right in. Do all three things and even if you screw it up, keep at it. In the end, if you do this, I think you’ll find that Lent isn’t all that bad and is actually a helpful season for your spiritual life!