Q: Can you help me better understand how I should approach the Lenten season? I always seem to find myself in the season without any preparation and then make a knee jerk commitment that I rarely follow through with. Anyway, I am a bit ahead of the game this year but would be grateful if you could help me improve my participation in this important time.
A: It’s admirable that you want to live the season of Lent in a better way. Many people, unfortunately, think of Lent as merely a time to “give up something.” They grudgingly accept some small sacrifice, hold their nose for 40 days, and then, once Easter arrives, return to business as usual. Lent shouldn’t be lived like that. It is meant to be a season that leads us to a deeper conversion of heart, a closer identification with Christ. Lent has a close connection to baptism. In the early Church, adults preparing for baptism would go through a catechumenate. This program, as the name implies, involved catechesis, or instruction, about the faith. The Roman-style catechumenate, officially in place by A.D. 200, extended over two to three years and involved intense preparation each year during the six weeks prior to Easter. As the candidates approached their day of baptism (usually on Holy Saturday) they would fast for a few days. The community would join them in this fast. This was the origin of the Lenten fast. (The tradition of a 40-day fast was established in Rome in the fourth century.) The community in effect accompanied the catechumens and also prepared to renew their own baptismal commitments at Easter. And what does baptism do for us? Among other things, it “gives a share in the common priesthood of all believers” (Catechism, 1268). The common priesthood involves the work of sanctifying, teaching and governing. Our personal example of holiness can help carry out the first work; our words, the second; and our good use of authority (be it parental or political or some other type), the third. In any one of these three areas we could find ample reasons to work on something during Lent. Moreover, “Scripture and the Fathers insist above all on three forms, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, which express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others” (Catechism, 1434).
So what does it mean for us concretely? It means that we should aim to get rid of sin from our lives forever, and not just during Lent. You mention about making a “knee jerk commitment.” Instead of a spur-of-the-moment decision, try to set aside some time for prayer and calmly and deeply look at your life. How is your life of piety now, compared to a year ago? What are the sins you confess the most? Those sins might give you an idea of where you should focus your energy. Then, give yourself a concrete goal during Lent, something that will help you battle these particular sins. Give yourself a reasonable goal, something that you can continue to live after Easter. For example, if overeating is a problem, don’t opt for a bread-and-water diet three days a week. The likely result is that on Easter you would pat yourself on the back and then return to your old ways. Rather, learn to make a small sacrifice at each meal — and then see if you can continue that habit after Lent is over. Be sure to give your sacrifices a spiritual motivation too, such as for vocations or for the conversion of a loved one. The other two parts of the triad — prayer and almsgiving — are also crucial parts of the equation. Try to attend daily Mass. Pray the Stations of the Cross once or more times a week. Daily rosary and spiritual reading are good too. If you can get a spouse or a friend to join you in these extra activities, that is even better. And don’t forget almsgiving. This can involve acts of charity or volunteer work as well as donations to worthy causes. And keep in mind those baptismal commitments. A Lenten program could include efforts to share the faith more at your workplace. In a word, make your Lent pro-active. The habits you develop in these 40 days can serve souls all year round.