Lent will soon be upon us and as it approaches the Church asks the faithful to consider what Lenten practices they will adopt in anticipation of the season. Traditionally, three weeks before Lent was a season a “pre-Lent” preparation called Septuagesima. It was a reminder that Catholics should begin to turn their minds and hearts towards the Lenten season of penance, almsgiving, and increased prayer. Even though the modern General Roman Calendar doesn’t denote the three pre-Lent Sundays of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima, we can learn from tradition to begin preparing for Lent before Ash Wednesday takes us by surprise. (Click here to read more about Septuagesima season).
Lent is meant to be a time for the faithful to prepare their minds, bodies, and souls for tremendous feast of Easter. Catholics are asked by the Church to practice fasting, to increase their prayers or deepen their prayer lives, and to give alms. While these are all practices that should be undertaken all year round, during Lent they take on a special significance, and the faithful are asked to “go deeper” with these expressions of faith. There is also greater emphasis put on meatless Fridays and the Lenten days of fasting. There is a temptation to treat these three pillars of Lent as a checklist, instead of as three opportunities to deepen one’s faith, and to engage in spiritual combat. Lent isn’t meant to be treated as a punch card or a quid pro quo agreement with God that gets you some extra candy at Easter, rather it is meant to be transformative. If a person doesn’t make it to Easter having been transformed in some way, then Lent was simply an exercise in “ATM style Catholicism” or a white knuckle experience of gritting one’s teeth until Easter time so they can go back to “normal” again.
If one wants to approach Lent as it is meant to be approached, it is necessary to develop an action plan. But how is Lent meant to be approached?
First, Lent is supposed to be a time to deepen one’s relationship with God through prayer. This means developing or deepening one’s interior life. This is why prayer is one of the pillars of Lent. Secondly, Lent is meant to be a time to confront personal faults that hold one back from loving God and that keep one from accepting His love. This is why fasting from these things or “giving them up” is a pillar of Lent. Confronting one’s faults, sinful tendencies, or bad habits requires mortification. Sometimes learning how to let God love you and giving up those things that keep one from him is harder than any penance. Lastly, Lent is a time to look beyond ourselves to others. Letting go of our selfishness to provide for those who are less fortunate or have greater needs than we do requires us to give from a place of sacrifice or need. This is why almsgiving is another pillar of Lent. The goal is to make it to Easter with new habits, a deeper relationship with Christ, and greater freedom from material wants that prevent us from helping the poor. Lent is a time to work on the interior transformation we need in order to be saints! So how do we do it?
An incremental approach to Lent
It is not uncommon for Catholics to begin Lent with the best of intentions: an ambitious prayer routine, a determination to undertake rigorous penances and fasts, and a decision to sacrificially give alms. Five and a half weeks, followed by Holy Week is a long time, however, and it often happens that about half way through a Lenten “slump” sets in. The prayer routine dwindles, the fasting becomes less rigorous, and less frequent, and the almsgiving becomes more superficial and less sacrificial.
What if there was a way to flip the Lenten slump on its head and instead of tapering off and limping towards Easter, one could begin slowly and gradually, and build up to the crescendo of Holy Week? What if one adopted an incremental approach to Lent instead? Taking the five and half weeks of Lent plus Holy week, there are two different ways that the season can be broken up into increments: The Two Week At a Time Method and the Incremental Addition Method:
Two Weeks at a Time:
- Beginning on Ash Wednesday, concentrate on ONE of the pillars of Lent. (We suggest prayer, since it should be from prayer that all good works flow and from which one gains strength to change habits and build new ones.) Then for the next two weeks, make it a point to focus on growing one’s prayer life. Resist the urge to bite off more than can be chewed, however. Instead of committing to 30 minutes of scripture reading or mental prayer, start with five. Set a timer. For five minutes sit with God and think about His Word. After one week, add two minutes. After two weeks, add another two and so on. When Easter comes, don’t stop – keep going! This is the transformation that Lent brings about!
- After two weeks, add in a second pillar of Lent. Perhaps a form of fasting. Again, don’t overestimate oneself, but instead seek to confront a habit or fault that keeps you from accepting God’s love or from loving Him in return. If social media is a distraction from prayer or puts you in a frame of mind that is not focused on God’s Providence, remove it from your daily routine. If sleeping too much keeps you from prayer, give up some sleep and set your alarm ten minutes earlier so you can pray for a few moments before the day starts. If physical comfort makes you lazy and you neglect your prayers or duties, fast from some comfort (take a lukewarm shower instead of a hot one, wear the thin socks instead of the thick ones, sit on a wooden chair instead of the recliner). Continue with your prayer routine.
- For the last two weeks add in the third pillar of Lent. Decide on an amount you will give to the poor either in your church’s poor box or through a reputable charity. Really sit with your budget and see what you could afford, if you removed some of the “extras” from your life. Could you give up a subscription to an app and instead donate that amount? Could you buy the less expensive groceries and give what you would have spent to those who have no food? Could you cancel Netflix or Hulu or some other form of entertainment and give that money instead to those who have no shelter? Then ask yourself if you could give just a little more. Enough to make you uncomfortable and realize that all of us need to rely on God to provide. Can you give enough to let Him prove to you that He will?
Following this approach will allow you to build manageable habits during Lent and avoid the Lenten burn out of starting out strong and then losing momentum.
- Similar to the Two Weeks at a Time approach to Lent, the Incremental Addition approach lets one build slowly up to Easter by forming good habits without getting overwhelmed and burnt out. Start by choosing something to do for each of the three pillars of Lent. Start off small. Perhaps read scripture and think about it for 5 minutes every day. Fast from something that distracts you from God’s goodness, maybe this means cutting down on time spent online, not engaging in discussions about the faults of other people, or waking up a few minutes earlier every day to say a morning prayer. Decide how you will approach almsgiving. Maybe cut out a small daily expenditure (that cup of coffee, the take out lunch, or the in-app purchases for a game you don’t need) and then give that money to the poor through your church or to a trusted charity that assists the poor.
- The next week, increase your Lenten commitments in each of the three areas above. If you are praying for 5 minutes a day with scripture and mental prayer, add a few minutes. If you have given up some time on social media, give up a little more. If you decreased some comfort, add a little more discomfort. Find other ways in which you can sacrifice your spending habits to give some of that money to those who don’t have anything.
- Continue to build up what you are doing for each of the three pillars of Lent, each week, in little increments. By the time you reach Easter, the goal is to have built a solid and sustainable mental prayer routine, to have removed a distraction from God’s love in your life, and to have made giving to the poor, even from a place of personal discomfort, a habit to carry on into Easter and beyond.
The gentle approach to Lent
Lent can seem daunting and overwhelming sometimes. It is possible to lose sight of the fact underneath the prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, the purpose is ultimately to build a relationship. Relationship isn’t often a word one hears associated with Lent, yet it is precisely the purpose. Lent is a love story. The whole reason we fast, pray, and give alms is because they are ways by which we grow in relationship with the God Who made us and Who loves us. It is this relationship that is at the heart of the whole Paschal Season – that God loved us so much that He gave us His Son so that we could come to know Him, and then He allowed His Son to die for us, to restore us to the relationship with Him that sin broke. God doesn’t desire our fasting, our almsgiving, or our mindless repetition of prayers for their own sake. He desires our hearts. Fasting, prayer, and almsgiving are the tools we use to build a relationship with God. The Church, in her wisdom, tells us that the pillars of Lent are meant to teach us how to give our hearts to Him, and to allow Him to love us.
Once we understand that Lent is about a relationship and a love story with the God of the universe we can approach it differently. We can approach it gently. Sometimes we use Lent as an excuse to punish ourselves for our faults and sinfulness. Sometimes we use Lenten fasting as an escape from an encounter with God. Yet it is the encounter that we need. So how does one gently approach Lent in order to deepen the relationship God desires for us?
- Begin with this simple Lenten prayer: Ask God simply and directly to show you what prevents you from loving Him, and what prevents you from accepting His love. Then ask him for the grace to confront it. Ask Him to help you remove it from your life. Tell Him you want to love Him more and you want to accept His love. If you struggle with the idea that God loves you, simply ask Him to prove it. You are allowed to ask that of Him, and He wants nothing more than the opportunity to prove His love for you.
- Then turn to Our Lady. Ask her to teach you how to love her Son. Ask her to help you see how He is leading you and showing you His love and answering your simple Lenten prayer.
- Lastly, make friends with your Guardian Angel. It is their job to help you grow in holiness and to help you tune in to what God is wanting to show you about Him and His love. Every day of Lent pray the above prayers. They take just a few moments, but when you pray them sincerely, they will change your life.
- Make the Sacrament of Reconciliation a weekly or bi-weekly habit. Make a Spiritual Communion throughout the week if you can’t go to a daily Mass. These two Sacraments keep you open to God’s grace at work in your life and they help you stay in tune to how He will answer your Lenten prayer.
- You will notice that you will have an urge to act on the prayers you are saying. Maybe a thought or a prompting to remove something from your life. This may not happen right away. Pay attention to these good urges. They are the Holy Spirit and your angel showing you that God is answering your Lenten prayer! When God shows you something that you need to give up, make that your Lenten fasting. Continue to ask for the Grace to respond to Him and the courage to give up the things He shows you prevent you from loving Him.
- Lastly, as an act of faith, make an offering to the poor. Think of the widow in the scriptures whom Jesus says gives her last coin. It was ultimately her act of faith and giving what she had that was praised by Jesus. When love becomes an act of the will – an action – we are stepping out in faith. We can show our love for God by loving the poor and by helping to meet their needs. Almsgiving in Lent lets us make our desire to love God an action.
This gentle approach to Lent may seem too easy, too simple. Yes, it can be used incorrectly as an excuse to not do the things we know we should or that we need to during Lent, however, this gentle approach is really a way to let God lead us through Lent so that as we approach Easter we have a deeper relationship with Him. Relationships require communication and sacrifice. Learning how to give up the things that prevent us from developing or accepting the relationship God desires for us to have with Him is the goal of the gentle approach. He will never lead us too harshly. God is infinitely more gentle with us than we tend to be with ourselves. This Lent, why not step out in trust and let Our Lord teach you how to let Him love you?
Which approach to Lent will you choose? Do you have a different way you enter into the Lenten Season? Tell us in the comments!
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