What comes to mind when you think about Lent? The color purple? Chocolate, or the lack thereof? For all the press it gets in movies and the media, Lent carries a certain amount of mystique. “Surely, surely,” people say, “there must be something more to this than giving up chocolate?” (There is.)
There was a time when the spiritual disciplines of Lent were widely practiced throughout the Western world. They were simply second nature. Somewhere down the line of history, the larger culture lost this common heritage, but it never disappeared completely. Lent is alive and well! (And yes, there is much more to it than chocolate.)
“Doing” Lent is really pretty simple. The hard part is sticking to it for six weeks…and letting the Holy Spirit do His work in us.
Below, I’ve laid out 5 simple steps for a rich, revitalizing, and restorative Lent. They’re general guidelines, not detailed how-to’s. The idea is for you to take these 5 things, reflect on them, pray over them, and tailor them to your own personal needs for spiritual growth and nourishment.
If this is your first time practicing the Lenten disciplines, strive for doing one step–and do it every. day. The others can be addressed ad hoc throughout the season.
Why 1 step? Because one is better than none! It’s also easier to stick to than 5. Why daily? Because in order for the season to actually change us (which is, after all, the goal – what? you thought this was a six-week sprint of suffering?) we need consistency. We need to consistently pursue–and, thereby, create–a new habit.
1. Give something up.
This is the most obvious (or at least famous) Lenten discipline. In addition to fasting (Ash Wednesday and Good Friday) and abstaining from meat (all Fridays in Lent), which are non-negotiables for Catholics, it’s traditional to pick a specific Lenten sacrifice to go without for the duration of the season. (Chocolate comes to mind.)
Frankly, the idea of fasting can come as a bit of culture shock to our modern, first world sensibilities.What hypocrisy! What a waste of time! How hard is it, many people scoff, to give up chocolate? Well, for the scoffers, probably not very. But for a frazzled mom who’s daily bit of comfort is a square of dark chocolate behind a closed door during nap times, it could be a very difficult sacrifice indeed!
The goal is to give up some creature comfort (food or non-food) that temporarily satisfies your body–and discover the void it’s been masking in your soul. How deep, how tender is that void? Where do your instincts lead you in your attempts to fill it?
It might be a glass of wine at the end of a long day to remind you that you’re above the fray. Or a nightly dive into a romance novel to provide the butterflies that aren’t coming from a lackluster marriage. It might mean waking up an hour earlier and giving that time to God. It might be your morning Starbucks. Or your yoga class. Or make-up. Whatever it is, you’ll know because the thought of going without it for six weeks will make your stomach drop a little. That’s it. Give that up. And let God in.
2. Add something new.
In college, I was led to practice a rather extreme fast for a season. One day a week, I went without meals from sun-down to sun-down. This period of fasting taught me a lot about myself and really helped me to grow spiritually. However, one aspect of it came as a total surprise: I had so much more time on the day I fasted. Without the necessity of planning, procuring, making, and eating meals, I was suddenly bored.
When we fast during Lent, we should notice a similar “boredom.” By going without, we open up a spiritual and temporal void, and into it, something is bound to rush. It may be empty time. It may be temper. It may be something totally unanticipated! But whatever it is, it behooves us to take stock of it and to fill it with something holy.
You may not be able to plan for this step before Ash Wednesday, but once you’re in the thick of Lent, I promise you’ll find it helpful. Take it to God in prayer, and discover what He is calling you to do. If your sacrifice was giving God an extra hour of your sleep, you may be able to swing some extra Mass attendance. If you gave up a comfort food, you may discover a new devotion, such as the rosary or Divine Mercy chaplet will help to calm and restore you the way that square of chocolate once did. If your sacrifice has left you with extra time, you might devote it to an increase in personal prayer or Scripture study. If sacrificing make-up or a portion of your wardrobe has revealed a level of insecurity or vanity you didn’t know you had, why not take it to God during a weekly Holy Hour?
Whatever God is challenging you to, once you know what it is, strive for consistency. Whether it’s something you’ll be doing daily or weekly, schedule it. Stick to it. Allow this new practice to become a habit that will stay with you long after Lent is over.
3. Give something away.
Along with fasting and prayer, almsgiving is the third traditional Lenten practice. Different from tithing, which is a portion meant always to be set aside to the Lord for His work, almsgiving is over-and-above generosity–and unlike tithing, which is always monetary, it can take many forms.
Giving money to a worthy cause or charity is an excellent option, but that may not always be possible. The good news is, you can totally get creative with your almsgiving!
Why not package up some of your favorite clothes and accessories to donate to a battered women’s shelter? Not the cast-offs you had destined for Goodwill anyway, but something you really love that you know someone else will truly treasure. You might also give your time: Volunteer to do yard care for an elderly neighbor or a single mom who can’t afford a lawn service. Serve one evening a week at a local soup kitchen. Sign up to deliver meals to families in need through your parish. You might also save money by eating down the pantry this Lent, and donate the savings to that cause you didn’t think you could afford!
4. Take something on.
It’s been said before, but we live in a very Me-Centric culture. We like control, we like comfort, and most of all, we like to make all. the. choices. It feels good for awhile. Sometimes a long while. But ultimately, all this control means we’re missing out: on God’s plans and on our fellow man.
My priest has a phrase for this kind of living: Navel-gazing. The image is of a person staring intently inward at their own belly-button. Try it, and you’ll realize that once you’re focused so far inward, you really can’t see much else.
When we are too focused on ourselves, we can miss out on God’s calling–our true purpose and vocation. We also miss out on finding and serving God in the faces of those around us.
If you’re feeling spiritually dry this Lent, you may feel compelled to take a break. May I humbly make a suggestion? Rather than taking a break, take something on. Find someone to serve. Commit to a new ministry, at least for these six weeks. It could be something formal, like serving at your parish’s Lenten soup night. Or it could be something totally unique and personal, like purposing to chat for five minutes each day with the awkward guy at work who always eats his lunch alone in the staff lounge.
Look outside yourself this Lent, and discover what God has in store!
5. Turn something off.
I was born in the 1980s, so my peers and I had the very unique experience of literally growing up along with the birth of the internet. Throughout our childhood, personal computers took hold, then gaming systems, cell phones, smart phones, social media. With each new phase of our lives, a new device took off and utterly changed the way we operate as a culture.
Now the things we once did without (because they didn’t exist!) have become so commonplace, we can’t imagine being away from them. I won’t deny that modern technology has some great benefits. My smart phone allows me to buy the groceries I just bagged–even when I forgot my debit card at home! (Thank you, Apple Pay!) Skype, Facebook, and email give us access to friends and family who live thousands of miles away. Texting lets us keep in touch even when we don’t have time to pick up the phone.
But all this access can come at a price: It pulls us away from where we are. Especially if you struggle with transitions or stimuli, the constant blinging of a smartphone can be utterly overwhelming! More and more, people are admitting that they’re having trouble focusing on the things that matter–because they’re so distracted with all the exciting, enticing offerings of the virtual world. It begs the question.
If we struggle with paying attention to the needs of our children, the demands of our jobs, or the nurturing of our marriages–how much more do we struggle with listening to God?
This Lent, choose to turn something off. It might be something you switch off for six straight weeks (like Facebook). Or it might be a set day, or time each day, when you switch off all technology. (Jen Fulwiler had some great stuff to say about her experience of not using screens–or electric lights–after sunset during Lent.)
At first blush, this step might sound a lot like fasting, and you might be tempted to skip it. Don’t. Turning off technology is very, very different from giving up a creature comfort. One is self-denial of the body. This is self-denial of the mind. It’s a sacrifice of convenience, accessibility, and distraction that we can offer back to God in the form of an open and attentive heart. Give it a try, and I promise you will be changed.
Relish the stillness. Live into the silence. Listen for that still, small voice. It’s saying everything, absolutely everything, you need to hear.