It’s coming up on that time of year again: the time that our whole Church calendar centers upon – Lent and Easter. As Christians and as Catholics, we are taught throughout our lives the three things we are supposed to practice during Lent to bring us closer to Christ: pray, fast, and give.
I always find those instructions to be a bit vague, which always makes it hard to accomplish the goal of renewal and reconversion. And, of course, any direction towards those three practices always ends in the same “been there, tried that; nothing has changed for me.” How often have we chosen to give up chocolate, TV, or Facebook; or said we are going to read the Bible or pray the Rosary? All great things to do during Lent, and commitments I usually make when it comes to Lent. But at the end of Lent, how many of us actually sit down and examine our Lenten practices and the influence those practices have had on our daily lives? I know I have not, which just goes to show how wrong my approach to Lent has been.
Lent: The Checklist Version
I had not even thought about my approach to Lent until my husband converted to Catholicism and I had to explain why we do what we do during Lent. Embarrassingly, I really did not have a good answer to his question – at least not an answer fit for a convert. I answered that it is a time for contemplation on one’s life as a Christian, but for someone who is not contemplative, and is more of a doer than a thinker, that whole concept was completely ineffectual and he was left unsatisfied and even scratching his head in confusion. It has been difficult for me to explain exactly why it is good to pray, fast, and give, particularly during Lent, since two out of three of those things we do on a weekly basis (and I am betting the majority of you reading this probably do them as well).
For many Catholics, including myself, Lent has merely been a list of things to check off – sort of like Spring Cleaning two months ahead of time and for the soul. However, when Easter comes and goes and we return to the daily grind, no real change has happened in our daily lives and everything returns to normal. At least that is what happens to me every Lenten season, and then I am left scratching my own head at the end, thinking, “What was the point?”
What is the point of the Lenten Call?
So how can one apply Lenten practices to daily life so that they is not just abandoned at Easter? And, moreover, what is the point of doing prayer, sacrifice, and almsgiving, particularly during Lent? It all lies in the focus. Speaking personally, my focus has always been in the successful completion of prayer, sacrifice, and almsgiving, and not at all on the change developing in my life as a whole. Again, these are not bad things, but there comes a point in one’s spiritual life when it must become more than checklists and completed tasks. We are called to have a true conversion of our hearts and minds and a redirection of our life towards Christ, ultimately renewing our baptismal promises at Easter (USCCB). This is the point and purpose of Lent. It prepares us for Easter and all the fulfilled promises.
Lent is the time to refocus our lives, to contemplate and reflect on what it means to be followers of Christ. But that is broad, far-reaching, and something we are obviously supposed to be doing throughout our life, not just during Lent. So what can be done differently during this season that will prepare us for Easter, but also change how we live our daily life?
Lent: Same Call, Different Approach
There are many ways to answer the above question, but one good way to change your approach to Lent is to pick one aspect of Christian life to focus on and practice it throughout Lent, connecting it to prayer, sacrifice, and almsgiving. You’re still answering the call of every Catholic, but approaching it differently. One practical suggestion is to pick a virtue – the thing that has the most direct impact on daily life and has a result you can see – from the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
You could choose any virtue to focus on during Lent, and then follow these three steps to have a successful Lenten season.
- Prayer: Pick a prayer that focuses on the virtue you have chosen, in which you ask the Lord to grant you that virtue and help you practice it in your daily life. You could also create your own prayer. Pray it every morning before you get out of bed. Practice that virtue throughout the day and at the end of the day do a quick examination of how you practiced it or where you failed. This examination does not need to be an hour long, or even longer than 15 minutes. Simply five quiet and uninterrupted minutes is enough time to think about the practice of that virtue throughout your day.
- Sacrifice or giving: Sacrifice your leisure time for education on that virtue. Pick a saint that exemplifies that virtue; for example, Saint Augustine is a great saint who exhibits Temperance, or Saint Catherine of Siena for Prudence. Read about that saint and ask that saint for intercessions during Lent and to help guide you in practicing that virtue.
- Almsgiving: Continue to give to your parish, but perhaps look for an organization to give to that preaches the virtue you are focusing on. For example, if Fortitude is the virtue, donate to an organization that actively advocates for the life of the unborn; or donate to the Little Sisters of the Poor, who actively fought against the contraception mandate in Obamacare.
Simple, But Not Easy
Picking a virtue to focus on during Lent brings the vague down to the specific. The steps to practicing that virtue are simple, but do require contemplation, time, and even planning. Doing that is practical, but not easy; then again, Lent is not supposed to be easy. It is not supposed to be thoughtless, but rather well-thought out as to how to approach the Lenten call.
However, at the end of Lent, this practice is actually something you can witness in your daily life. It makes Lent less like a checklist to accomplish and more like a journey with a clear mission. Challenge yourself this Lent, with a clear purpose. Then, when Easter comes and goes, hopefully you will still see the gifts it has brought you and manifested in your daily life.