Lent is a forty-day journey with Christ in the desert. Beginning Ash Wednesday and ending on Holy Saturday, it’s an opportunity for Catholics to take stock of their spiritual lives. The season’s emphasis on fasting, prayer, and almsgiving grants us the chance to draw closer to God through spiritual disciplines.
That sounds lovely and rather poetic, doesn’t it? But how does one accomplish a “good Lent”? By having a plan.
Without a goal in mind, no plan will succeed. As you embark on your Lenten journey, you need to decide upon your goals.
Obviously, drawing closer to God is a goal. Our entire lives are pilgrimages to Heaven. If a habit or action doesn’t bring us one step closer to that destination, then it’s a habit or action we should avoid. Lent is sort of a microcosm of that larger journey.
You may need to stop a bad habit or sinful behavior. Or, there’s a big decision which requires discernment. Maybe you need to focus on re-establishing a habit of prayer. Knowing what is most needful in your spiritual life can help you decide how to spend your Lent.
Days of Fast and Abstinence
The most defining characteristic of Lent is its days of fast and abstinence. Once, the Catholic Church had strict rules about fasting and abstaining.
Prior to Vatican II, Catholics fasted for the entirety of the season, except on Sundays. Fasting then means what it does now: two small meals and one large meal, if necessary. The two small meals could not be as large as the one main meal. Most days were days of partial abstinence, meaning meat was only allowed for one meal.
Today, Catholics are required to abstain and fast only on two days: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. It could be easily argued that such loosening of the rules has led to a decline in how people observe the season. Now, instead of major life changes and self-sacrifice caused by the strict rules, many Catholics think that by simply giving up chocolate, they’ve had a good Lent.
The second thing to decide in a plan for Lent is how to tackle fasting and abstinence. Will you observe the old rules or the new? Or perhaps a compromise between the two? If you choose to give up certain foods rather than fasting, which ones?
Saints for centuries have commented on the good of spiritual reading. For example, Saint Jerome once said, “When we pray we speak to God; but when we read, God speaks to us.”
There’s no need to borrow half of the parish library. In fact, reading one book slowly is more beneficial than reading a lot of books in a short amount of time. Use Lent to read up on a favorite saint. This is where having a goal really comes in play. If you know what you want to accomplish during Lent, you can better direct what you read.
The National Catholic Register compiled a list of good books to read during Lent. This list includes:
- Theology for Beginners by Frank Sheed
- Journey to Easter: Spiritual Reflections for the Lenten Season by Benedict XVI
- Strange Gods by Elizabeth Scalia
- Your Questions, God’s Answers by Peter Kreeft
- Life is Worth Living by Bishop Fulton Sheen
- Our Lady of Kibeho: Mary Speaks to the World from the Heart of Africa by Immaculée Ilibagiza
- Any of the small volumes offered by the Confraternity of the Precious Blood
- The Day Christ Died by Jim Bishop
A Habit of Prayer
Prayer is another important pillar of Lent. Prayer is how we speak to God but, when silence is incorporated, it is an excellent way to rest in God’s presence. Not having a prayer life is tantamount to being married but never speaking to your spouse. Or, go to your parents’ home but not addressing them. In order to have a strong spiritual life, you need prayer.
Prayer comes in two forms: vocal and mental. Vocal prayer is anything by rote or book. This includes the rosary, chaplets, and the Liturgy of the Hours. Mental prayer includes meditation, contemplation, and spontaneous talking to God. One isn’t better than the other. Each has its own place in the spiritual life.
Try adding one new prayer habit to your daily routine. That could mean praying from the Liturgy of the Hours or dedicating one hour a week to Eucharistic adoration. It could mean praying the rosary. If your parish offers Stations of the Cross during Lent, that would be an excellent addition. However, try to do something that will continue to be a part of your routine even after Lent.
The last thing to consider for your Lenten plan is almsgiving. According to an article by Mike Aquilina, almsgiving is another form of prayer:
Why is almsgiving better than prayer and fasting? Because it is prayer, and it involves fasting. Almsgiving is a form of prayer because it is “giving to God” — and not mere philanthropy. It is a form of fasting because it demands sacrificial giving — not just giving something, but giving up something, giving till it hurts.
It’s not just enough to toss in an extra dollar in the collection plate at Sunday Mass. Consider re-evaluating your finances. Can you give more to your parish or another charitable organization? Also, consider taking part in a practice called “tithing”. This involves giving a tenth of your income on a regular basis.
This may sound scary, especially in today’s job climate. However, trusting in God is a key part of the spiritual life. We must trust in God to take care of us. Also, giving more financially can also force you to re-evaluate how you use your money overall. Tithing for the collection plate could mean giving up frequent visits to your favorite coffee shop or force you to eat at home more often, rather than going out.
A Plan for Lent
With these four things in mind (fasting, reading, prayer, almsgiving), you have the foundations for a good Lent. All that’s left is utilizing self-discipline to keep to whatever plan you have created. To do that, it’s vital to keep in mind your goal not only for Lent but for your whole life: union with God in Heaven.