“You Catholics…” it often begins. “Yeah, yeah, I know. We pray, we fast, we abstain from meat on Fridays.” But just stopping there and falling into the Lenten Queue for 40 days doesn’t really achieve the reason that this season exists. Here are 5 ways to make the most of this mandatory Catholic season.
1. Take Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving Seriously
Rather than doing things just to do them, we’re called to be fully engaged in the spiritual activities we undertake. In fact, that’s the whole reason we have religious practices in the first place! God doesn’t particularly need us to give up meals, but doing so is an act of worshipping God and learning spiritual discipline. These are really three things, so I’m cheating on the “5 things” shtick a little!
Prayer is important. You know that already. But Lent is a time to do a kind of check up. When you go to the dentist for your annual teeth cleaning, he pokes around for cavities to see if there are any areas of decay that need to be drilled and filled. In our spiritual life, reexamining our routines of prayer can reveal the ways in which we’ve just been phoning it in, the time we’re giving to intentional prayer (like flossing regularly!), and also the ways in which we’ve truly met God.
Your prayer might include going to daily Mass once-a-week in Lent, setting aside 10 minutes after getting home from school or work to truly “waste time” with God in a favorite chair or the local Adoration Chapel, or it might be as simple as reading a few verses a day from the passion narrative.
Fasting isn’t just going without food, it’s joining our physical hunger with the deeper spiritual hunger for deeper communion with God. It’s letting ourselves experience the pangs in our stomach that Jesus felt as He prayed in the desert. His hunger pains were not only for bread, but also for the souls of those whom He would save by dying on the cross.
When we choose to fast, not just on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday – although those are the only official days in Lent we are obliged to do so, we worship God by depriving ourselves in a small way and ask for Him to fill our emptiness.
Almsgiving isn’t just placing our envelope the offertory basket. Many kings, bishops, and even the pope had an almoner. (The pope still employs an official almoner at the Vatican). Their job is/was to distribute charitable gifts and organize the performance of charitable deeds for the needy. You can be a kind of “almoner” by taking the money you’d spend at CoffeeBucks™ each week during Lent and donating it to Catholic Relief Services (like Operation Rice Bowl), your local St. Vincent DePaul society, or your parish’s needy fund. You might also think of a way you and your family can “almsgive” your time to serving the needy.
ProTip: The office of papal almoner continues even though almost all of the other offices of the curia are technically dissolved at the death of a pope. He “continues to carry out works of charity in accordance with the criteria employed during the pope’s lifetime.¹” See? The work of giving to those in need is never concluded for the “poor will always be with you.”² We must serve them and in doing so, serve God.
2. To Make It Through the Desert, Get a Guide!
The example set by Jesus to go into the wilderness or the desert to pray is not just a literary device to suggest that Jesus was alone, hungry, and thirsty. It was also an invitation that would be shared by Christians who saw in Christ’s time of temptation in the desert, a real opportunity to follow His path and perhaps discover a new closeness with The Lord.
From about the 2nd Century after the Resurrection of Jesus, The Desert Fathers of the Middle East lived a rule of life daily which included what we often trudge through for 40 days. Their lives, rather than scare and repulse, actually drew disciples to their number. For in the desert, God is found.
Perhaps you might pick a saying of one of the desert fathers and have them lead you through Lent. You can read a few tidbits of wisdom from the desert fathers at a real-life monastery in New Mexico seeking to live what these men from nearly 20 centuries ago found following Christ in the desert. There are also more sayings contained in the Orthodox Wiki.
3. Be Okay with The Slogg
Sometimes, Lent is just plain hard! In the same way one might experience complete exhaustion halfway through a race, Lent is a marathon. Some moments are easier to bear than others. One must be unconcerned about the pace and more concerned with each footfall and breath. If you fall, get back up! The constant actions of the Lenten routine lead us closer to God and the “finish line” of Easter Sunday.
4. Learn About Why We Lent
As mentioned earlier, part of what makes Lent laughable for many Catholics is their ignorance of why we do what we do. The natural inclination is to joke and half-heartedly pick something to give up, while not really intending to do any of it for God or to deepen our relationship with Him.
If you’re feeling academic:
If you’re in the spiritual reading mood:
5. Give Up Something Realistic
“I shall give up all food” or “I shall refrain from all internet” usually starts off strong and then gives way to a complicated series of pinprick size loopholes. From there, the lenten observance usually springs a leak. Before you know it, you’ve got the H.M.S. Lenten Titanic sinking in a salty sea of guilt.
Remember, simple, small steps are all that is necessary to do something beautiful for God. Pick a simple Lenten observance that will be challenging, but manageable. Once we find mastery in small things, the Lord begins to lead us to the larger tasks by which we can glorify Him.
I often think of the Widow’s Mite at Lent:
[Jesus] sat down opposite the treasury and observed how the crowd put money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow also came and put in two small coins worth a few cents. Calling his disciples to himself, he said to them, “Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.” Mark 12: 41-44
Don’t give up something out of your surplus. Give up something out of your poverty. It may be a smaller offering, but it will mean more to God who sees into the heart.
After all, that’s what Lent is about: getting closer to the Heart of God and finding Him dwelling in yours.