Either way, I think it’s helpful to take a step back and assess what we plan to undertake for Lent, why we are choosing those things, and how to best go about deepening our relationship with God and embracing the penitential nature of the season.
The Church in her wisdom has already given us guideposts for how to structure our spiritual renewal during this season: Lent is known as the liturgical season for “prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.”
If we aren’t feeling prepared to dive into Lenten penances, it can be tempting to ask what others are doing and just follow them or commit to doing something that seems appropriate for the season. But as we enter this last week of Ordinary Time before Lent begins, I encourage you to spend time in prayer and quiet reflection to really focus on those areas that you need to work on to grow closer to God and to be a more faithful follower of Christ.
Here are some ideas for discerning what to undertake this Lenten season:
Prayer is probably the easiest to take on when deciding what spiritual practice to do for Lent with the intention of continuing afterward. For example, there are “classic” Lenten observances you can easily plug into, like the Stations of Cross, that you can commit to praying regularly.
I try to choose my Lenten prayer regimen based on what has been on my heart or what I have felt drawn toward but have yet to act upon. For example, maybe you feel that you don’t know the Bible as well as you would like to. You can check out the daily readings here, or listen to or watch a short reflection on them. Or you can commit to praying the rosary several times a week (or daily), using a Scriptural rosary or iconography to help you focus.
Before I matured in my faith, I thought that “fasting” essentially meant: “One full meal, two small snacks, get through Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and then you don’t have to be hungry during the day for another year!.” Only as a young adult did I begin to understand that we are not called to only fast from food, but also from things that are holding us back from God.
I used to fast from chocolates or desserts as my Lenten penance almost every year, whether I had been indulging in them too much or not. Once I tried to fast all of Holy Week because that seemed like the kind of thing that hardcore Catholics would do. Neither of these penances bore much fruit for me because I hadn’t chosen to fast from things that were really impeding my vocation as a follower of Christ. Choosing what to fast from for Lent is probably the most difficult thing for us to choose wisely because it involves serious reflection on our own faults and weaknesses. Do you have a negative way of thinking about certain people because they have wounded you? Do you turn to food as a source of comfort instead of praying? Do you indulge in inappropriate books, movies, or TV shows? Do you spend too much time on your smartphone games, Facebook, or Instagram mindlessly scrolling and occupying your time? Think about some things that might be hindering the deepening of your spiritual life and try fasting from one this Lenten season.
Many parishes and dioceses use Lent as a time for special appeals and almsgiving opportunities. I recently came across this idea from a friend: during the season of Lent, she and her family cut back on unnecessary expenditures (like Starbucks or junk food) and donate that money to a local charity that is of particular importance to their family. Others choose Lent as a time to increase their regular weekly or monthly offerings to their parish, and then maintain that new amount for the rest of the year. Maybe you don’t have a lot of expendable income—then perhaps you could donate a few canned or dried foods to your parish’s food pantry or find another way to donate your time or your talents to your parish or local community.
In the past few years, I have taken to limiting myself to working on one or two specific things for each of these categories of Lenten penance—things that will help me grow closer to God and that I can see myself continuing long after Eastertide is over. I started doing this after a particularly ambitious Lent during which I had a multi-item, handwritten list of things I was going to do—none of which I maintained past the first two weeks because I was completely overwhelmed and burned myself out. When we reach too high, too fast, we can end up setting ourselves up for failure and not making any progress at all! I encourage you to try to focus on things that are realistic not only during the season of Lent, but that you may also incorporate into your life permanently.
For resources to prepare you for the Lenten season, please click here.