It’s Not Too Early to Start Thinking about Lent
Who looks forward to Lent? Maybe the saints among us do, but I feel pretty comfortable in saying that most of us don’t look forward to Lent. Fasting and penance are usually reluctant undertakings for me. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed I appreciate Lent more. I’ve started to see it as an opportunity for spiritual growth. And, the seasons where I grow the most, I have a good plan in place before Lent starts. Don’t wait until the day before Ash Wednesday to think about what spiritual practices to undertake for Lent. In general, we should consider adding something to our spiritual lives, adding fasting of some sort, and reading scripture. I’m by no means proficient in Lent-ing, but I do have some tips that would hopefully help.
Keep the End Goal in Mind
What does it mean to have a successful Lent? It’s not a question that we always start with, yet it’s a question for which we always have an implicit answer. Is the goal to simply give up something, and make sure to go to Ash Wednesday Mass to get a mark on the forehead? We have to remember that Lent and Easter are two sides of the same coin. The Church gives us Lent because Easter is so important on the macro and micro levels. The resurrection of Jesus changed the course of the entire world! Included in that is the opening up of salvation to every single person. Jesus didn’t suffer, die, and rise from the dead for a vague collection of people; He did that for you and me—for everyone. So, the goal of any Lenten exercise should be preparing to celebrate that monumental event. If we lack that perspective—and the penances or spiritual practices turn into ends unto themselves—we make ourselves more susceptible to looking at Lent as forty days of drudgery.
Besides having an end goal in mind, another key principle is to set manageable expectations. This has tripped up many Lenten seasons for me. I had a picture in my head of how holy I should be, and I often measured myself against that perfect, imaginary person. Year after year, I failed to measure up to Perfect Me. Perfect Me fasted like a desert hermit and was happy and joyful throughout; on some days, Real Me couldn’t muster the strength to stay away from sweets for more than a couple hours. Perfect Me balanced family, worked full time, all the while having the prayer life of a contemplative. Real Me missed out on prayer completely on some days, and on other days was only good at getting distracted. I frequently felt like a disappointment that I could never become Perfect Me.
This year, don’t fall into the ‘perfect me’ trap. We should have goals and ideals, and Lent is a time to challenge ourselves. Yet do not compare yourself to a false image of yourself who has no flaws, no weaknesses, does not live in a fallen world, and maintains a perfectly ordered life. Rather, focus on Jesus; focus on the goal of becoming a holier person; focus on the type of person you’d like to be. It may feel like only a subtle shift, but it’s an important one.
Make a Plan
With those starting principles in mind, it’s not too early to plan out what to do for Lent. I recommend that your Lent includes all of the following elements: adding to your prayer life, fasting from something, reading a spiritual book, and increasing your reading of Sacred Scripture. Take some time in prayer to ask the Holy Spirit for advice on these things. Is there a particular vice or weakness to target, or an aspect of the faith that needs development? Also seek the input of someone close to you that takes their faith seriously. For the past two years, I’ve asked my wife to recommend a book for me to read for Lent. Each time, it’s been one that I wouldn’t have picked otherwise; each time, it was just what I needed.
1. Adding to Prayer Life
There are so many devotional practices in the Catholic treasury and any one of them would be a good addition. The Chaplet of Divine Mercy, the rosary, and novenas are good starting points. And these are worth continuing past Lent! Things particular to Lent can also be added: praying with the stations of the cross or the seven sorrows of Mary.
Spending more time with our Eucharistic Lord is another thought. Try getting to daily Mass once or more a week. Or, find a local parish that has an adoration chapel and start a weekly holy hour. These two things have often felt unattainable to me. However, once I tried committing to a weekly holy hour, I found I looked forward to it. It was the same with going to Mass a day or two during the week; it never felt convenient, and sometimes felt like an interruption to my work day. Yet every time, my day was always better because of it.
2. Fasting From More Than Just Chocolate
The token fast for Lent is to give up chocolate. Thinking of appetites in terms of food is most common, but there are many other things we have an appetite for: attention, watching TV, buying non-essentials, spending time on social media, and so on. The goal of fasting is to tune out the world and make more room for God. It may sound like a silly question, but can’t God and our appetites for the world coexist in us without competition?
In short, no. For centuries, the saints have told us that true happiness and fulfillment are found in God, both in this life and the next. And, the world should be seen for what it is: temporary, fickle, and not ultimately fulfilling. It took me years to be convinced of this. I could always agree on a conceptual level, but if you looked at my life, my actions didn’t correspond. After a hard day, I’d turn to watching TV and eating; easily burning 2-3 hours on a show/movie. When it came time to pray or read the Scriptures, I’d struggle to devote even ten minutes to Our Lord.
Jesus promised rest to all those that walk with Him (Matt 11:28), urged us to trust in God for the large and the small things (Matt 6:25-34). It’s a fair question to ask: what do you turn to when you have a hard day? Food? Social media? A good TV series? If we turn to anything other than God, then fasting is the antidote. Here are some ideas for all types of fasting:
-Refrain from watching secular TV; that is, watch religious programming or nothing
-Listen to only Christian music/Catholic radio/Catholic podcasts
-One or two days a week, skip breakfast, lunch, and then eat a full dinner
-Don’t eat after 7:00 p.m.
-Take a break from social media
-Limit time spent on a tablet/smart phone, or give up a particular game/app
All fasting should point toward God. I’d recommend anything that helps disconnect from the secular culture: watching only religious programming, tuning out all secular music, giving up social media, and limiting screen time. My wife and I watched only religious programming one year, and it was one of the best things we did. I thought I’d die of boredom, but the programming I thought I’d miss I soon forgot. Plus, we gained more time to talk, pray, and read.
When considering fasting from food in whatever way, please make sure that it fits with your health situation. Diabetics, pregnant/nursing mothers, and anyone with a health condition should pick some other way to fast than from essential nourishment.
3. Reading a book
The goal with reading a book for Lent is to grow intellectually and grow in the faith. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend picking up a Lenten-themed book; I think it’s more helpful to read a book to supplement your life of faith. To grow in one virtue or another, find a saint who exemplified that virtue and read their biography. There are tons of good books on the person of Jesus, if your relationship with Our Lord needs to reach a more personal level. Other subjects could be the Blessed Virgin Mary, learning more about the Mass, or books on the spiritual life in general.
Read more Scripture
To make any progress in the spiritual life, one of the key components is daily reading of the Scriptures. In years past, the thought of this really intimidated me. I felt like there was so much to know about the Bible, that I didn’t know where to start. Didn’t I have to memorize every apologetic issue? Be able to cite a multitude of verses? And have a favorite verse? A favorite gospel? I fell into that Perfect Me vs. Real Me trap again, and for many years it kept me from making a real effort to read the Scriptures.
If you’re in a similar situation, I recommend starting with the Gospel of Matthew. It can help to have a good commentary nearby (the Ignatius Study Bible is a great one), but be sure to read the scriptures first and the commentary second. Or, if you’re more familiar with the gospels, try moving on to one of the epistles of the New Testament. Using Formed and orthodox Catholic talks on YouTube—there are tons of them—as additional learning tools really helps it stick.
This year, think of Lent as the spring training for Easter. Take advantage of this holy season!