Lent is here so I thought I would forward some advice I’ve received about observing it. If you are feeling discouraged in Christian living, you can do no better than to undertake a Lenten discipline even outside Lent.
First, I’ll pass along a bit of general advice that applies to everything we do, especially for Lent. The Church’s penitential disciplines are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, so we’ll take them in that order.
General Advice: Keep It Simple, Stupid
You might have a history of laying out grand and intricate plans for personal growth and then driving into those plans with aplomb and pulling off success with ease. Or you might be like most of us. In that case, you might try scaling it back a bit. It’s true that sometimes God gives folks intricate plans. We see that in the instructions for building the ark and for building the Temple of Jerusalem. Very often, though, the commands he gives are really, really simple. They could hardly be said to amount to a plan. “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there till I tell you,” (Mt 2:13). We pull off simple plans easier than complicated ones.
Bear in Mind: God Does Lent for Us; We Don’t Do It for Him
If you think that you are going to crush Lent, it will crush you. And good. You apparently need a firm crushing or a heaping spoonful of you suck. The point of Lent is not to stretch ourselves, it is not a fitness regimen to make ourselves grow in holiness, it is not to prove ourselves to God or man, and for pity’s sake, it is not a contest.
Lent is the Church’s annual collective retreat. Forty days in the desert are meant to part us from the nonessentials and help us learn to rely on God. While the Israelites wandered in the desert forty years, it was God who delivered them, God who directed them, God who fed them, and God who blessed them. In Lent, let God be your deliverance, your direction, your food, and your blessing.
Turn to God: Start by Letting Him Pick Your Penances
Normally we don’t ask people to pick out their own gifts. But bearing in mind that Lent is a gift that God gives us to give to Him, it seems less weird to ask Him to pick out the gift. Spend some time in prayer and ask God or the Virgin to show you what they would like you to do for Lent.
Do something daily. Daily disciplines become lifelong habits. Daily prayer is, if nothing else, a sort of tithe of our time. Do something meditative that will open daily room for God to speak into your heart. Looking at the examples of the saints, we find nothing more highly and frequently recommended than daily scripture meditation, daily rosary, or more recently, a daily divine mercy chaplet. If nothing else comes to mind, pick one of these. Ideally, do it at a fixed time of day when you are reasonably alert.
You should abstain from one or more things that are positive goods that you are allowed to give up; giving them up should be difficult but doable.
So don’t give up some sin – I mean, do that, but that’s not a Lenten discipline as the Church has generally understood it. You don’t need fornication or lying like you need food and drink, they aren’t good things like food and drink. And don’t give up doing your chores or something like that. It was a funny idea when we were 13, and most people have gotten over it, but it needs to be said.
Also give up something that is doable – don’t set yourself up for failure. And give up something that will really challenge you. Bear in mind the challenges that life already has for you. If you feel like you’re barely holding it together as the sole breadwinner for a family of six, don’t shove yourself over the edge of sanity.
Social media and the news, especially if they take more than a few minutes of your day or if they just make you angry, are great things to give up. Talk about a spiritual cleanse, a spiritual time in the desert. They’ll be hard. You might not know the coolest meme or Facebook challenge. You will be better for it, though.
If you do fail – that’s OK. The irony of Lent being something that God does for us is that if we fail, he has still done something for us: he has shown us our need for him. Job done. Just start up again.
If your fast is more rigorous, or even if it is not, it’s OK or even good to make use of the Sunday relaxation. Otherwise, Lent is more than forty days. Also, the Sunday relaxation, in my experience, helps mark the time. Of course, Sunday is also the day of the resurrection, and trumps ever other fast or feast. It is literally what we are here for.
Follow the rules that apply above. Something difficult but doable is the key. If you have a budget, take some out of your “fun money” or your “eat out” fund and give it to the poor. If you don’t have a budget, form one and make charitable giving a line item.
Another good idea, especially for folks who live in the city, is to carry small bills to give to beggars. There’s a-whole-nother blog post about personal giving or referring people to institutions or giving them sandwiches-and-love. You can already start to get a sense of where I line up in that debate. If it bothers your conscience to give panhandlers cash, that’s fine. Anything works if it gives real and immediate help. I think it is very important to see the poor. Jesus sees us.
Lent isn’t a new year’s resolution for Christians. It’s a spiritual retreat while we live in the secular world. And don’t kid yourself: doing it well is way harder than doing a retreat in some cabin. Things you can do to get a little spiritual space from the workaday concerns, things that stretch you and make you grow, things that show you your frailness – these are things that God might want to do for you.
Do whatever He tells you.