What Can You Do Now to Prepare For Lent?
Last year was a weird year for the calendar for Catholics. Ash Wednesday was on Valentine’s Day and Easter was on April Fools Day. Not this year. This year Easter is significantly later than last year, actually on April 21, and so Ash Wednesday is also nowhere near Valentine’s Day. Though we are about a week from Ash Wednesday, it doesn’t mean that Ash Wednesday, and Lent, should be off our minds. Not that we should wear ashes or rend our garments while now; but rather take some time to prepare ourselves for Lent. We can do much in the next week to prepare ourselves for Lent that will help us be able to enter into the Lenten Season and thus the joy of the resurrection come Easter.
The three traditional Lenten practices are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. But these are certainly not limited to Lent and are excellent spiritual practices for any time, including preparing for entering into Lent. I want to give you some ideas of how to incorporate these three practices into your life before Lent begins so that Lent may be more fruitful for you.
Prayer is the bedrock of our relationship with Jesus Christ and the Trinity. Prayer is our communication with God. We should always be doing it, but we are called during Lent to specifically focus on it.
However, why wait until Lent?
Often times, many people get to the night before Ash Wednesday and then realize they are supposed to do something for Lent. Often they might decide to give something up (we’ll get to that in a little bit) but a few people might choose to take something on. A daily rosary. Weekly confession. Daily scripture reading. All these are good, but they are good TODAY and not just during Lent.
Why not start slowly now that you are ready to up how much you do come Ash Wednesday. Maybe you would like to start praying the rosary. For many people, this is a good goal but one that if they start cold will often get disappointed in when they miss a day or two. So, start today with the goal of praying the rosary two or three times a week. Begin to make it a habit. Actually, write it into your calendar or set a reminder on your phone. Get used to praying it and get comfortable with it. Then, if you want to, you will be quite ready to take on the Lenten practice of praying a daily rosary.
Or perhaps for the prayer component of Lent you want to start praying the Liturgy of the Hours. This is a very noble goal as the Liturgy of the Hours is the official prayer of the Church and the one which all priests and religious are obliged to pray on behalf of the Church. It would be an excellent practice to take up in your daily life as well, especially as it helps center the day around prayer at particular hours.
However, it is fairly daunting to start from zero and begin to pray all the various hours. So don’t go from zero to full bore all at once and burn out. Start slowly. Perhaps start with just morning and evening prayer. Each of these takes between 10 and 15 minutes when it's prayed at a good pace. Do not rush through them but give them the time they deserve, while not dawdling through them either.
Can you find 15 minutes in the morning and 15 in the evening to dedicate to this? Probably, although again it might help if you actually schedule it into your calendar or set a reminder. Then when Lent comes and you are in this habit you can add in night prayer and the Office of Readings. That would mean you are doing the majority of the Hours that priests and religious do and would be an excellent spiritual habit.
Fair warning though, the Liturgy of the Hours books are tough to get used to and know which page to be on and which page to flip to and so if you make the investment in purchasing the books ask your local priest if he might be able to give you a little lesson in how to pray the Liturgy of the Hours and which pages to be on. Or, if you don’t want to spend the money, there is a free app called “iBreviary” which has a very simple layout and you can just read through the prayers without having to worry about which page to flip to for a saints’ feast day. The app will occasionally ask you to think about donating money to assist Christians in the Holy Land, but this is a noble ask and one that I don’t mind for the value of the app.
This is perhaps the most famous of things that Catholics do during Lent, and actually many non-Catholics will do some kind of fasting during Lent. 'What are you giving up for Lent?' is a common question asked. Often times this revolves around food—perhaps you are giving up snacking, or dessert, or alcohol, or meat.
All of these are good. But the practice of fasting is, again, an excellent spiritual practice both inside and outside of Lent.
So, for now, one month before Ash Wednesday, is there some kind of fasting you might be able to do and begin to incorporate into your life? The suggestion from the Church is to abstain from meat on Fridays, and although we are required to do this during Lent, maybe we can begin to do this all year round. But, technically, abstaining is not fasting. Choosing a meal a week to not eat is a good habit.
Perhaps you make a practice of fasting from lunch on one day a week. Prepare for it though. Pack a snack for that day. Maybe instead of a full lunch, you just have an apple and water for lunch. You don’t have to starve yourself, but you should feel the difference in your stomach.
Or perhaps there are health reasons why you can’t fast from food. Maybe you are pregnant, or in ill health, or work a job that requires a lot of physical exertion and you need the food. Is there something else you can fast from in your life? Maybe it is media consumption. Perhaps you want to begin to fast from your cell phone. A good practice is to turn your phone off Saturday mid-afternoon and not turn it on again until after you go to Mass on Sunday. Leave Saturday evening and Sunday morning to be phone free.
But don’t just turn around and binge Netflix while your phone is off. Make a spiritual practice of it. Or maybe tell yourself that you will only go on social media on Monday, Wednesday, and Fridays and the other days you will not. This is an excellent way to begin to fast if we are unable to fast from food.
Like prayer and fasting, this practice is a good one even outside of Lent. During Lent, we might do the Rice Bowl where we collect our loose change or we might choose to give more to our parish or diocese or other charities. But what can we do to begin to make the practice of almsgiving part of our regular spiritual lives before Lent?
Let me make a suggestion.
This week, take $20 and buy four gifts card of $5 each for a restaurant or coffee shop. Carry these 4 cards in your wallet or purse throughout the month and make sure that once a week you find somebody to give them to. For most of us, $20 a month isn’t a lot to ask of us, and we can begin to make almsgiving a regular practice in our lives. Then perhaps during Lent we bump it up to $40 a month and purchase 8 gift cards and make sure we hand out 2 per week. The exact numbers aren’t what is important but rather that we are actually doing something. And we don’t have to wait until Ash Wednesday to do this.
One thing that we should also begin a habit of is the reading of scripture.
Although not one of the three traditional prayer practices of Lent this should be part of our lives. Again, many people start this and try to go from zero to reading entire books in a single day. Ease into it. Make it intentional and fruitful. If you are not already going to daily Mass, the readings for daily Mass are an excellent place to start with reading the scriptures. There are many publications that will send you the readings of the day in a small book for the entire month. Or you can go onto the Catholic Bishops website and find them there for free. Or perhaps you want to purchase a study guide or book that will help you not only read but begin to study and understand deeply the scriptures. Make this a habit and do it!
I would also recommend reading a good Catholic novel between now and Ash Wednesday. Or if not a novel, perhaps a book that explains some aspect of the faith or biography or autobiography of the saints. I suggest a couple of them below:
- St. Francis of Assisi by GK Chesterton
- The Story of a Soul by St. Therese of Lisieux
- Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton
- Confessions by St. Augustine
- Helena by Evelyn Waugh
- The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
- The Brother Karamozov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
- Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
Books on the Catholic faith or theology:
- The Refuge from Heaven by Cora Evans
- A Father Who Keeps His Promises by Scott Hahn
- Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict XVI
Of course, there are many more than these books that would make excellent pre-Lenten and Lenten reads (not to mention post-Lenten reads) but I only offer this as a starting point to begin your search for other books. Please don’t be limited to them!
The key to getting ready for Lent during this month is simple- DO SOMETHING! Don’t just wait until you are lying in bed the Tuesday night before Lent begins and remember that you are supposed to do these and try to think of what you want to do. Start now and intensify in Lent. It will make Lent, and Easter, so much more powerful if you do so!