Lent begins in a week so it’s time to get thinking about it. One thing I would encourage is the practice of actual fasting. Fasting as it is currently practiced by Catholics in the west has become absolutely laughable, two days a year and you still get three squares. Now the practice is hard I won’t deny but salutary. And so I am reposting this from last year.
Ash Wednesday is fast approaching, so it is time, if you havn’t already, to start thinking about and preparing for lent. In talking with others about what to do during Lent one often hears ‘I’m giving up chocolate’ or ‘I’m just going to do what the Church asks of me, that’s good enough’.
Please… not to judge but…. really? You might as well be substituting pillows with synthetic stuffing for ones with feathers.
Lent is a time to do penance. In order for penance to be effectual it needs to be felt. Doing the bare minimum or choosing an insignificant sacrifice isn’t going to have much impact.
Let’s take a look at what the church requires of us. First of all this isn’t what the Church “asks” of us, it is what she requires. In the US we are required to fast on 2 days (Ash Wednesday and Good Friday) and abstain from meat on all Fridays of Lent, and the definition of fasting still allows three meals (details spelled out here). That really isn’t much. At the beginning of this post is the image of an old card I have which lists the requirements from 1952, go read it carefully.
Yep that’s right, within living memory of today, all able Catholics were required to fast for every day of lent. One can look at the relaxations of the requirement in a couple of different ways, allow me to put a positive spin on it.
When the Church requires something we owe obedience, because she has real and legitimate authority. To disobey is sinful, just as it is sinful for a child to disobey his parents. If penances are freely chosen rather than obligatory, then when one fails through weakness it is an opportunity to grow and learn, without the added burden of personal sin. So, to reduce what is demanded is merciful because it reduces the opportunity to sin.
Ok, so the minimal requirements of the church are just that, likewise voluntary penances which are insignificant are inadequate. So what should one do? Lent has 3 traditional practices they are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. One needs to incorporate these in a personalized way.
Prayer- prayer is lifting the mind and heart to God it takes a number of forms and degrees of depth. Devotional types of vocal and mental prayer (the rosary, stations of the cross chaplet of divine mercy), liturgical prayers (divine office aka liturgy of hours, Mass), spiritual reading (I will most likely follow up with a list), lectio divina (prayerful reading of scripture), and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament are all things which can be introduced or increased. For example, do you pray the Rosary daily? If not maybe plan on starting. There are lots of possibilities.
It is important to schedule time for prayer otherwise you will fail. If you are busy, have a family, young children and such it may mean getting up 20 minutes before everyone else to pray (that’s what I do), or praying while commuting to work, maybe having a recording of scripture or spiritual works in your car. Apart from personal prayer you can introduce communal prayer within family life in various ways. Spouses can pray or do spiritual reading together after the children have been put to bed (the office of compline is one possibility, there are many forms of it here is one http://www.franciscan.edu/imagebase/Academics/music/compline%20Program.pdf )
Fasting- Fasting includes any practice which is felt physically. It is the mortification of the flesh.
Its purpose is threefold, it is to strengthen the control of the rational (the spirit) over the irrational (the flesh) Gal 5:17 onward. It allows lots of opportunity to practice, to choose to act in a certain way rather than being compelled by our appetites. If we practice saying no to ourselves with chosen legitimate pleasures, then it will be easier to say no to ourselves when the desire for an illegitimate pleasure arises.
Secondly fasting has the function of constantly directing the soul to spiritual things. Every time the hunger is felt one remembers why they are fasting.
Thirdly fasting is a sacrifice. It is an opportunity to join your sacrifice, your suffering, to that of Christ. “Lord accept my sacrifice and join it to your own”. If our pains, no matter how insignificant, are joined to Our Lord they have value (on their own without him they don’t) fasting is an opportunity to be in union with Christ.
Some suggestions- several little things like not putting sugar in your coffee can add up to something effective, cold or lukewarm showers, turning off your cell phone or other access to the internet and media, abstaining from certain foods (meat or dairy or whatever) or even the traditional fast. Choose something challenging. If you choose something on the more ‘severe’ side of things you should run it by a trustable confessor or spiritual director and if it is too difficult when you try it, then reduce it a bit. You might want to set a standard and work up to it over the course of a few years, each lent being more difficult and closer to the goal than the previous. Health issues should be taken into account of course, pregnant ladies should be eating for example.
Almsgiving is giving to those in need. There’s not much more to say, just do it. You may make it a sacrifice for yourself, like.. instead of buying ice-cream put that money in the alms jar. Having a jar or can to put money into is something kids can be involved with as well.
So be manly (or Lady like) and make something of this lent.
PS. it is against tradition to do penance on Sundays (in the East both Saturday and Sunday)