Growing up, all I knew about Lent was that it meant giving up something. For me, that usually meant chocolate, or if I was feeling particularly brave, all desserts.
Now, as an adult with a real desire to truly know God and understand the traditions of our faith, I am rethinking Lent. Why do we give something up anyway? Is there value in adding a faith practice to my life instead?
The 40 days of Lent are meant to be a time of preparation – the fast before the feast. It calls to mind the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert before beginning His public ministry. And so, small acts of self-denial, or “mortification,” are enacted to remind us of, and unite us to, Jesus’s suffering.
I reached out to a few faithful Catholic colleagues and friends to get their take on Lenten practices – beyond giving up wine or chocolate – they have found fruitful in their walk with God, and the interior changes that came about as a result. The thoughts they shared with me may encourage you to try something different this year.
What are you giving up for Lent?
One friend shared that she is giving up coffee, though not for the usual reason. As Caitlin told me, “I am giving up coffee, and using that time instead to pray and recognize my need for God rather than caffeine.” She added that this will help her more proactively form relationships with coworkers, as well. “Instead of going to make coffee at work and have small talk – so my main motivator in those situations is coffee – I want to switch the motivation, and instead get a glass of water, but still begin a conversation with someone.”
My friend Ruth is limiting where she spends her free time, being selective with social events and asking, “Will this bring greater glory to God?” That seems like a great question to ask about all our actions during Lent. Similarly, she will be on a spending fast, not purchasing anything new aside from the basics like groceries during these 40 days.
Ruth shared this story about a previous spiritually-motivated ‘spending’ fast: “I was reordering some skincare that had run out. I also really wanted to order a new product but then I remembered my commitment to nothing new and took it out of my cart. Before I could place the order, the consultant I buy through posted on Facebook that she would send that exact item to the first person to place an order that day. So, I ended up getting it for free! I was blown away by God’s generosity. It was a real lesson to me.”
Remembering the Less Fortunate
One more example that I found moving, was provided by my friend Caroline: “I’m giving up some financial luxuries (getting my nails done, having my apartment professionally cleaned once a month, etc.) and using that money to instead buy McDonalds gift cards for the homeless.”
The things that we could “give up” are truly limitless. Whether it’s for every day of Lent; for just the Fridays; for just the mornings or another time of day – we have the opportunity to look at the things in our life which truly are luxuries or which distract us from God’s voice. In giving up these things, we place our faith in God to strengthen us and bring us through this 40 days.
What are you adding for Lent?
Instead of focusing solely on what we can give up at Lent, the possibility of adding an act of service, time spent with God in prayer, or spiritual reading can be equally as meaningful.
Last year during Lent, Caroline collected love ones’ prayer intentions and brought them, personally, to God. “I set aside 5-10 minutes each morning to pray in detail for 1-2 people on my list. It was a great way to slow down and start each day by stepping outside myself and doing something for someone else. I’m also not a morning person, so it was a 3-in-1 deal: mortification, charitable work, and prayer!”
Similarly, my friend Cat shared a practice from Lent last year: “I wrote a list of 40 people – varying from close friends and family members to mere acquaintances. Each day, I would choose one name and write them a handwritten note, essentially telling them why I was grateful for them. In addition to bringing me closer to my loved ones, this practice also helped me cultivate more gratitude.”
Maybe now is the time to begin a practice of family prayer. As Heather shared, “I find vocalizing prayers is helpful, and what better person to do that with than someone I trust? Also, we find out a lot about each other’s spiritual needs and fears through family prayer. It has helped us through some tough and scary times, so I’d like to make it a bigger part of our routine. Add some praise and thanksgiving to our prayers as well! We don’t need to just prayer together when things are tough.”
Lent is a great time to learn about your church’s ministries and dive in. There is nothing quite like serving the less fortunate – or even others simply different from us – to remove our own barriers to loving God. Plus, during Lent, most churches have activities like the Stations of the Cross or book studies to augment your journey. If you’ve been wondering how you can better serve your community, now is the time to find out.
Similarly, have you thought about which saints could accompany at you this time? Maybe it is Pope St. John Paul II, as he encourages us to “be not afraid.” Or maybe St. Philip Neri, whose famous sense of humor allowed him to stay optimistic even in dark times. Find a book or a study program about a saint and add learning about them to your daily prayer and reflection period.
Interior Change and Relationships
It seems critical to spend some time in discernment over our own motivations, too, and the sort of attachments we’d need to lose in order to make room for God. Mandy reported that she has tried giving up coffee in the past and found it self-defeating – all it did was make her feel like a martyr! Rather, this year, she is focusing on saying no to more social and volunteering commitments, and to instead spend more time at home, cultivating quiet and her inner life. In other words, giving up spreading herself too thin, and instead leaning into a slower life which, for her, is a challenge.
Similarly, another friend says he will try to manage his reactions to things in his environment, “especially when people are not responding in a positive manner or even when I’m the culprit in making them respond in a negative manner.” Cajethan adds: “I believe the best Lenten observance for me is to sincerely and deeply reflect daily on my life in comparison to what Our Lord went through in His forty days of fasting and prayer subsequent to His Crucifixion and death on the Cross. This is always a very big challenge for me!”
Lent offers us a time to work on how we relate to God, others and ourselves. My friend Charlie reported that he will focus on repairing or strengthening a relationship. “Usually, this means that I have to step on my pride.”
What I’ll Be Doing
For my own focus on relationships during this Lent, I will be reading Jean Vanier’s The Gospel of John, the Gospel of Relationship for the first time. This seemed especially appropriate given the Church’s readings this year come primarily from the Gospel of John. I am hoping that delving into the Gospel of John, which focuses so much on love, light and Jesus’s friendships, will illuminate my own understanding of my relationship with Jesus, and what it means to respond to the call to love others as Jesus loves us.
I’ve also noticed that I am very quick to reach for my ear buds and listen to music or podcasts, particularly on my way to and from work. But some of the time I don’t even feel like listening to anything. I’ve realized that my ear buds are a reflex and a way to drown out what’s happening around me, especially on the metro when I am surrounded by other people.
But what if God wants me to pay attention to what’s going on around me? What if He wants to speak to me through what is going on around me? So, in a small act of self-denial, I will not listen to music or entertaining podcasts on Fridays. And when I do ‘plug in’ on Monday through Thursday, I will listen to something spiritually-focused, like a Bishop Robert Barron homily, Spiritual Batteries, The Pray More Novenas Lenten Retreat, or the deep but hilarious Catholic podcast, The Crunch.
A few closing thoughts. Another debate in my household growing up was whether one should enjoy the thing they have given up during the Sundays of Lent. I received two wise perspectives on this while preparing this article.
A priest friend reminded me that Lent is 40 days, minus the Sundays. So, we’re not actually supposed to count Sunday in our penance, but rather treat it as the mini-feast day it is, as we ought to year-round.
Secondly, friend and writer Nicholas pointed out that, once we’re halfway through Lent, we tend to no longer to miss the thing we’ve given up. It becomes easy to pass on the brownie tray at a party on day 25. But if you enjoy a brownie on Sunday, and have to re-give it up again on Monday, you more fully experience and live the sacrifice.
Both of these are excellent reasons to enjoy the thing we have given up on Sunday. I would, however, carry on the letter-writing, deeper prayer, spiritual reading or acts of service that you have “added” to your spiritual practice.
I also caution against self-criticism or rigidity in this process. Otherwise, we become obsessed with whether we are observing Lent technically or theologically correctly, rather than focusing on the thing that really matters: uniting ourselves to Christ. If you forgot to write a letter to a friend, or accidentally oversleep through prayer time, or don’t quite finish your spiritual reading, it simply means tomorrow is the time to re-commit and try again. That sounds a bit like all of the spiritual life, actually.
No Place for Comparison
Lastly, a few people felt sheepish in sharing their planned practice with me. They remarked that they felt like they were saying, “Look how holy I am!” But, here’s what I say to that: do not compare yourself to others. As we can see from the many examples above, what works for someone does not mean it will, or should, work for you. Even with the example of caffeine, we can see how one person’s attitude toward giving it up can be the opposite of another person’s lived experience. The key is to do the work of discerning, internally, where you stand and what interior change will lead you closer to God. I could give up wine and cake this year, but it wouldn’t be that difficult, because I don’t consume much of those on a regular basis. Similarly, it may be more testing for you to answer the phone when your family calls, than it is to serve the homeless, even though on the surface one looks like the holier choice.
It all comes down to you and God. Where do you feel His pull? What is place in your heart that needs His touch? What aspect of your daily existence is prickly, or rocky, and needs smoothed down in order to make room for God? That is where He is calling you to act.
And always remember, if you are still unsure of where to start, your priest, your Church, and your faith community are a resource. We make this Lenten journey together. And I believe God is simply happy that we are reaching out to Him, even when we fall short.