Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday; and each year at this time, the ways I’ve slipped in my faith life and daily practice as well as challenges in my family always seem heightened. Through that I see God’s providence. The season of Lent always arrives at a critical time.
I don’t know how you prepare yourself for Lent, but I often reach much further than I can achieve. Behind that overreach is a sincere desire, and within each of these strivings is the instinct for holy striving because, ultimately, the only fulfillment of our baptismal promise is sainthood. The corollary is likewise true: in our failures to achieve our self-defined goals toward holy striving, we realize even greater humility. This can make Lent a see-saw experience: going up in holy striving and crashing down in human humility. No doubt we learn something valuable in both the ascent and descent.
The Hallmarks of Lenten Practice with Practical Application
The three hallmarks of Lenten practice: prayer, fasting and almsgiving point us to the three categories on which we need to reflect to live out our Lenten strivings.
We need to take on renewed commitment to prayerful devotion. Make your goals specific such as, I will pray the Rosary each day. If you already do that, add the Divine Chaplet at 3 PM. Consider the noon-day Angelus. Begin your day with a Daily Offering prayer. End your day with an Act of Contrition.
Try to attend Daily Mass; and, if this is not possible, pray with the Mass readings each day and read about the saint of the day. You can find these online and in phone apps, and you can get a booklet each month to help you pray with the daily liturgy of the Church through Magnificat publications. The Church has established the rhythm of how to live lives of holy striving through countless prayer practices, spiritual readings, and devotions, but all of these begin in the rhythm of the daily Mass devotions.
Read this section of the Catechism on the role of prayer in a Christian’s life.
The call to fast during Lent is modeled after Jesus 40 days of fasting in the desert following his baptism and directly preceding the beginning of his visible ministry. The principle behind fasting involves curbing our worldly appetites so that we can shed the distractions that keep us from focus on the divine in our lives. At the most basic level, the call to sacrifice foods is about disciplining self-control which is the nexus for all the virtues.
On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, we are to fast not only from meat but also from our three meals and snacking. We are to eat only one full meal; and, if we eat anything at the two other meal times, these two smaller meals combined cannot equal one full meal. There is no snacking on Ash Wednesday, but there are no limits to liquid intake. Of course, those who should not fast include children, the elderly, pregnant and nursing mothers, and any others for whom fasting would harm their health. For the rest of us, the fast on these days, teach us that we can shed even that which we think we “need” to help us focus more inward to the spirit and to remind us of Christ’s sacrifices. We also learn solidarity with the poor.
Throughout Lent, one must abstain on Fridays from meat and meat products. Of course, this does not mean one should spend a fortune on expensive fish delicacies on Friday. The principle to follow is sacrifice from that which fills us up. A humble, simple meal on Fridays is essential.
Alms are material gifts that help the poor. We also know that we give by our time and talents as well as by our money and material goods. The principle here again is sacrifice: We are to sacrifice something of ours to help others in need. This helps us train our attention beyond our own needs and to focus on the needs of others.
Through our prayers, fasting and almsgiving practices we are to attune ourselves to the divine and to all the holy people God has placed in our lives. We are to dig deep in order to reach beyond — to sacrifice in order to depend more on God and to build up the Kingdom in the lives we can touch.
At the heart of preparing for Lent lies Confession, and Confession should frame your Lent. Try to go the first week of Lent, and go again before Easter. Shedding your sins is the precondition to living a holy Lent. And, as you move through Lent, you will uncover more and more of your sins. By the time you get to Easter, you will glimpse more fully the Grace to which our journey of repentance leads us.
May you grow in Grace during your Lenten journey. Strive for holiness in your Lenten practice, and know that God honors our holy strivings. Know also that you will fail; remain steadfast in your efforts, and do not despair when you fall. Cling to our Lord in your ascents and in your descents, and know that the see-saw nature of Lent blesses you in your strivings and in your falls.