The Practical Guide to Lent
A brief checklist to make sure your resolutions make sense
As a child, Lent represented a springtime of denial leading up to the chocolate-filled celebration of Easter, but as an adult I now understand a bit more why Christians have traditionally embraced the threefold Lenten discipline of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Simply put, we are creatures of habit and Lent gives us a reason each year to look at our habits and to see which ones draw us closer to God and which ones drive us further away from Him.
Having had too many New Year’s resolutions derailed by trying to fix everything at once, I’ve developed a brief discernment process regarding Lenten resolutions that has borne fruit for me in years past. Typically, I start thinking about the whole topic in the month approaching Ash Wednesday. When I have a moment or two on my commute or some down time before bed, I think about the relationships in my life and what needs help and healing. How am I doing in how I relate to God, to myself and to others? In what areas do I experience life-giving love? In what areas do I feel tempted to sin?
These small moments of contemplation then fuel my prayer. I bring these thoughts to God and ask for help in deciding what I can tackle in Lent.
Here’s a short checklist I have that helps me decide if what I am contemplating is manageable. Are the resolutions:
You’re not the worst sinner in the world and it’s prideful to think so, as a Jesuit friend once told me. If you’re consumed with everything you’re not doing right, you need to speak to a spiritual advisor to gain some perspective.
To borrow a term from the corporate world, what can I reasonably take on in the forty days of Lent to help me grow in my spiritual life? Maybe going to Mass each day isn’t possible, but maybe going to daily Mass once a week in Lent is.
A friend of mine in college gave up eating French fries each Lent, a resolution she probably first made in eighth grade. When I asked her about the connection between fried foods and sin, she drew a blank on why she chose that each year. However, I knew she struggled with acting impulsively, in settings as diverse as Macy’s shoe department and college parties. We talked more about what current behavior she might target to replace some of her impulsiveness with the virtue of prudence.
Although counterintuitive, entertain the idea that Lent might see you doing less of something (even a good thing), rather than more. As one Ash Wednesday approached, I realized that I needed to stop working at a soup kitchen each Saturday, something I had done for close to two years. The task took most of the day and all of my energy and by the end I dreaded weekends. While my body was engaged in service, my soul was deadened to others. I needed time away to recover from volunteer burnout and to find Christ again in those we served.
Given those general guidelines, these are some past resolutions that have had a lasting effect for me.
I like to start new prayer habits in Lent, or increase my arsenal of prayer forms. One of the best things I’ve done is to sign up to have the daily Mass readings emailed to me each morning (www.dailygospel.org). While I can’t generally make it to daily Mass, I can unite myself with the Church in reading the scriptures. Since I signed up three years ago, I’ve started each morning (mostly at work, with a cup of coffee) reading God’s words and trying to listen to what He is saying to me. It grounds me in my essential identity as a child of God and helps me to better order my other identities as wife, daughter, employee, sister, friend.
I also like to investigate a prayer form I don’t know. One year, I learned about lectio divina on retreat and another year I tried a nightly examen during Lent. Posting a set prayer with a list of people I am praying for on the door serves as a daily reminder to bring my cares and concerns to God. Finally, a few years ago I enlisted my boyfriend (now husband) to share his love of the rosary with me on our walks together. We periodically tackle the trails of Central Park praying together, he fingering his beads and me following along on my PDA.
I admit it, I hate fasting from food. Each time I do it, I obsess about when I get to eat next (which in its own way underscores how my priorities are a bit skewed). I’ve had more luck in trying to fast from disordered thoughts and behaviors. I started this type of resolution by fasting one Lent from needing to get a seat on the subway. For forty days, I tried to be a Christian during my commute and not jockey for a seat or silently assess who was taking up more than their allotted fare in square footage. It was hard to give up that attachment (and sometimes my seat), but it helped me to change one aspect of my behavior that wasn’t very Christ-like.
The next year, I worked on replacing the negative thoughts I had for a co-worker with prayer. Each time she annoyed me, I would resist rolling my eyes or saying something and before responding I would say a silent prayer asking God to give me compassion and patience. By Easter, she was no less a busy body, but I was different and could see more clearly how her need to control others stemmed from insecurity.
Almsgiving challenges us to look at how we use the time, talent and treasure God has given us. As a student in Catholic schools, we would place an Operation Rice bowl cardboard box on the dinner table in Lent as a reminder to share with those who did not have enough to eat. As an adult, I admit that the mite box sitting on my desk to collect the money I would otherwise spend at the snack machine sometimes remained mighty empty by Easter.
What has worked more for me is to try and listen to the promptings of the Spirit and translate my concerns into monetary or material support. I tend to volunteer a lot, so Lent is a good time to assess what I am doing and why. One year, this assessment led me to take on periodic nights staffing a shelter for homeless men. Last year, I felt compelled to give money to food programs in Darfur, since the funding for food assistance for refugees had been cut back forty percent.
I believe that God moves our conscience for a reason and that Lent is a time to try and more closely follow the path of discipleship that is uniquely ours. Whatever path you decide to take this Lent, remember that we are trying to grow closer to God, not vainly trying to perfect ourselves and our wills. Finally, regardless of the outcome of your Lenten resolutions, remember that at the end of Lent we are all called to the new life of Easter