By the Catholic Action Team
“That’s a Catholic thing, isn’t it?” one of my co-workers questioned, indicating my forehead.
It was Ash Wednesday of last year. I was at the office, having gone to Mass and received an ashen cross on my forehead accompanying the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”
“It originated with Catholics. The ashes mark the beginning of 40 days of Lent.”
“If you don’t mind my asking…what’s the point?”
What is the point?
Maybe you have been asked the same question. Perhaps you had a ready answer; perhaps you ask the same question yourself. Either way, there is a great deal of curiosity surrounding an entire 40 days of the year when Catholics make resolutions to give up material comforts and devote themselves to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
We must keep in mind that Lent is not just a season on a calendar; it is not merely a checklist that comes around annually, when we might give up coffee or chocolate for 40 days, leaving absolutely no impact on us after those 40 days. When we think in these terms, we find ourselves at Easter, the Solemnity of Solemnities, boxes checked, but still wondering, “what was the point?”
From a Festive Perspective
Concerning our physical bodies, even secular culture acknowledges that a feast which involves a prior fast is more wholly enjoyable.
In the early Church, a fast was held the day before every feast. Also, fasting was and still should be a way of life for Christians to deny themselves and take up their cross.
We do not fast because creation is bad. Rather, we fast to acknowledge the good of creation. We learn to cultivate our appetites for good things when and where it is good for us. St. Thomas Aquinas also says fasting has a threefold purpose: to kill lust, sets the mind on heavenly things, and mourn sin.
Develop Virtuous Habits
Lent is meant to be life-changing! The Church, in Her mercy, gives us this time every year to change ourselves. The objective is to help us form virtuous habits so that even after 40 days, we still have those acquired habits and devotions.
Our aim is to make Lenten resolutions that will enhance our spiritual lives in a way that will stick with us after 40 days. So when we reach Easter Sunday, the celebration of Christ’s Resurrection from the dead, we will have made so much progress that we can rise out of our vices to “enter the joy of Our Lord!” as St. John Chrysostom announced in his famous Easter sermon.
A fast from technology or sweets does not give us an excuse to binge on these goods after Lent or on Sundays during Lent. Instead, we train ourselves to be moderate. We are no longer slaves to our bodies.
A successful Lent means that we were able to gain more control over and get close to overcoming our defects and vices. In their place, we develop a serious life of prayer and virtue.
Follow these 3 steps for a successful Lent:
1) Determine which Lenten resolutions are best for you
Take the days before Lent to identify what has most brought your focus away from God.
Consider your vices. Are you prone to impatience? Go to the root. Impatience is one of the offsprings of pride, which is a disordered attachment to one’s own excellence.
Prayer, the Sacraments, and mortification of mind and body are key.
Many people are too busy, like Martha who was "anxious and worried about many things" (Luke 10: 41). If we struggle to spend time with our families, think about how much we might be struggling to spend time with God. This might require a fasting of the mind. For instance, cut down on technology and entertainment time, such as social media, movies, and internet surfing, and use this time for spiritual discipline without immediate and visible rewards, like praying before the Blessed Sacrament.
Others struggle with disciplining their bodies. We have a difficult time saying “no” to our temporal desires. This leads our untrained bodies also to say “no” to a deep spiritual life and the sacrifices that come with that. This might necessitate fasting of the body. For instance, give up creature comforts that will temporarily satisfy your body, like that afternoon snack or extra hour of sleep. You will feel a void at first and look for what is not there. Instead of using that material item or action to reinvigorate you, offer those sufferings and insecurities to Our Lord.
Whatever it is, if the thought of going without it for 40 days scares you, then give it up. Likewise, if the thought of adding something to your routine for 40 days scares you, do it!
Remember, Lent is not just about giving something up; it is about forming virtuous habits. We sacrifice our weaknesses in order to help us form habits for the good of our spiritual lives.
2) Apply “SMART Goals” to Lent
SMART is an acronym for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based. It is a simple tool used in the business industry to set actionable plans to make goals.
Here is an example: you want to overcome impatience and gluttony and deepen your prayer life.
Specific: Avoid the abstract (I will limit technology and temporary physical comforts; I will pray more). Make it concrete: I will limit time on the internet; I will limit eating sweets; I will pray the Rosary and do spiritual reading).
Measurable: Attach numbers to what you will do: I will give up all social media; I will eat no sweets during Lent; I will pray one Rosary daily and read the bible for 15 minutes daily.
Achievable: Avoid something you know you cannot do (Give up all internet; fast every day; 2 hours of daily spiritual reading). Focus on what you can do: Give up social media, but still use internet for email and work; give up sweets and wait five minutes when you sit down to eat a meal; pray a daily Rosary and and read the bible for 15 minutes in the evenings without distractions).
Relevant: Focus on what can deepen your relationship with Our Lord. Use the time you would have taken for social media and extra eating to pick up the spiritual activities.
Time-Based: When do you expect to accomplish your goal and how often? For example, we will do these actions for 40 days. By Easter, you hope to establish habits of reaching for the higher things instead of the lower things. You will be more patient and temperate because you have disciplined your mind and body. You will have more time and mental and physical energy for Our Lord.
3) Keep a Private Lenten Calendar or Journal
Use a private Lenten calendar or journal to gauge your progress and keep you on track. It is not meant to be a countdown until Lent is over or a source of self-righteousness. It is meant to be a humbling reminder for ourselves of how we have failed or succeeded in putting our Lord first and overcoming our vices. If we fail one day (for instance, in greed), we make note and are more aware of that pitfall in the future. We must be consistent when we are trying to build a virtuous habit!
So, what are your resolutions this Lent? Here are a few more ideas:
- Go to daily Mass.
- Go to Confession.
- Spend time in front of the Blessed Sacrament.
- Increase your devotion to Our Lady (the Holy Rosary, through devotional books, etc.).
- Give alms (money, items, time).
- Pray the Stations of the Cross every Friday.
- Find ways to simplify your life (meals, entertainment, shopping) and devote that time to your spiritual life.