Several years ago when I was at university, the chaplain suggested we consider taking something up, rather than giving something up, for Lent. No, he didn’t mean eat even more chocolate; he was talking about prayer and charity work. It’s a practice I’ll be taking on this year as I set myself daily prayer goals.
Tale Up Something for Lent
The trick is not to overdo it: in my first years as a convert I took Lent as a kind of ‘become a saint in forty days’ challenge, which meant I set myself up to inevitably fail, and ended up giving up entirely half way through. I’ve since learnt that it’s better to aim for something that sounds extremely manageable, perhaps like it won’t even be difficult, because within those forty days I will have bad days where I am tired or in a bad mood or inordinately busy, and it’s then that the sacrifice becomes most valuable. ‘You are only as good as you are at your worst’ is a good saying to remind ourselves of during Lent. When, on a bad day, I can bring myself to meet with the small goal that ordinarily takes little to accomplish, that is when I am most faithful to Our Lord.
With prayer, I like to set a daily goal for the duration of Lent, and to make it as specific as possible. A good one is daily rosary: I like it because the prayers and meditations are decided for me, and there are plenty of booklets out there to guide me through it, so all I have to do is focus on the prayers and ensure I make the time for it.
Another way of being specific is to set a time frame rather than a set of prayers. So for example, taking up fifteen minutes of daily prayer – allowing myself flexibility when it comes to the form this prayer takes, but ensuring I meet with the goal of fifteen uninterrupted minutes with the Lord each day.
As a mother of young children with a husband working long hours, I admit both of these goals sound like they might not always be met – so I lower my expectations: I aim for a decade instead of a Rosary, five minutes instead of fifteen. The point for me during Lent is commitment and perseverance rather than grandiose sacrifice: even if the goals do not sound impressive to me, it’s consistency throughout the days and weeks that will render them worthy.
Giving Up Worry
The second thing I like to do as well as take up extra prayer might require more explaining: I like to give up something beyond a physical comfort – something abstract.
Christian teaching is not one easily reduced to hard and fast rules: ours is not a religion that commands that we pray a set number of times a day, that we wear specific clothing, that we eat certain foods. Instead, it’s a religion that commands us to be charitable, to be loving, to be at peace. These are abstract orders – it’s difficult to know exactly what achieving them entails.
When Our Lord tells his disciples ‘do not worry’ (Mt 6:31) he isn’t saying this to merely reassure them, he isn’t speaking in the way that we do when we tell someone to ‘relax.’ He’s ordering them, and us, not to worry. To worry, in other words, is a sin.
Giving up worry is an example of something abstract that we can try to do away with during Lent. Other abstract things you could give up are anger, impatience, envy. It’s difficult, because unlike giving up meat or Saturday morning lie-ins, these are not things we can measure. They require ongoing self-examination: we need to be particularly aware of our mind’s wandering ways, as such it is more difficult to truly know whether or not we are worrying. For most of us, some level of worrying, frustration, jealousy, envy etc. are second-nature, and they often do not feel like sins, it is just the way our mind involuntarily functions.
But abstract mental patterns are sins too, and the Lord asks of us that we exert control over them. Lent brings a great opportunity to make a concerted effort to do so.
How to Give Up Something Abstract
Here are some tips for how to give up something abstract this Lent, whether it’s worrying, envy, anger or judgment.
Set aside some time each day for examination of conscience. Instead of going through the ways you have fallen into sin in a general sense, focus on this particular habit you are trying to eradicate. How have I worried? How have I behaved in ways that lacked faith in the Lord’s plan? How have I hesitated when I should have been firm in the knowledge that the Lord loves and protects me? What thoughts or behaviours did this lack of faith trigger?
After you have identified the things that have caused you to sin, try to lay them to rest. Ask the Holy Spirit for renewed strength in this challenge. It might help you to use a saint’s words to keep you in the right path. I like to remind myself of St Teresa de Avila’s prayer, that tells us to place God at the centre of everything: ‘Let nothing trouble you; let nothing frighten you; everything changes, but God does not. Through patience you will obtain everything; whoever has God is lacking nothing: having only God is enough.’
This Lent I will set aside time each day to remember: there is no need to worry, just like there is no need to covet, to lose our patience, to judge – what others do or have does not regard us, what might or might not happen doesn’t either: we must place all our attention and trust in the Lord.