With Ash Wednesday now come and gone, Catholics everywhere embark on their journey of Lenten disciplines.
Lenten penitence can quickly begin to feel rote. While there is still great spiritual benefit in denying ourselves dessert or Netflix, sometimes we seek a more thoughtful or creative immersion into the three great practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Sometimes our imaginations need a jolt from the routine to help our bodies and soul enter into the Lenten spirit of preparation.
Liturgically, baptized Christians undertake Lenten disciplines in preparation for the renewal of baptismal vows at the Easter Vigil. Christians enter Lent in order to re-enter our sacramental participation in the Paschal Mystery of salvation. Ideally, Lenten disciplines will baptize our imaginations, allowing us to approach the world with fresh eyes and refreshed charity. For anyone seeking different ways to practice Lent this year, here are five ideas that may provide a new approach to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
1. Forgo music
Several friends have practiced variations on this theme. If you have a morning commute (by car, train, or bus, or walking across the quad) and flip to the radio or iTunes out of habit, this might be a fasting practice to consider. One of my friends turned off all music in the car on her morning commute, and the silence allowed her to pay attention to her interior landscape in a new way. Another friend gave up rap/pop/Top 40 during Lent, and listened instead to NPR or classical music, a sort of audial version of giving up candy. As fasting weans away our body’s emotional dependence upon food, so changing up what images and words we feed our imaginations can transform and refresh them.
2. Write a letter a day to a friend or family member
This is a different sort of almsgiving: one that offers up time and words to practice charity to those close to your heart. Writing a letter begins the practice of showing charity very close to home. And offering up time—which we treat so often as a commodity to spend, rather than a gift to be received—is a mortification for busy lives.
3. Give up the snooze button
This practice (which I have never been strong enough to take up) often demands a more comprehensive re-ordering of our lives. In order to get enough sleep, we must be disciplined enough to focus on our work during the day, and maybe give up extraneous distractions such as television, social media, or video games. Getting out of bed with the first alarm requires us to become careful stewards of the time given to us. It will also bring home the Gospel truth of the words: “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak [especially at 6:00 am]” (Matt 26:41).
4. Undercut vanity
Mortifying our own self-image can take many forms: giving up mirrors, make-up, posting on social media, gossip, or as one friend did, giving up self-deprecating talk. One friend challenged herself to respond to each compliment with a simple and sincere “thank you,” instead of deflecting or demurring. Letting go of our exterior image of ourselves creates space for us to focus on our interior image. In the words of Blessed Basil Moreau, may we come to possess “as vivid awareness of the maladies of our soul as we have of the maladies of our body,” and through deeper awareness of our maladies, come to deeper healing.
5. Visit a holy place daily
A vague resolution to “pray more” during Lent is often best accomplished when rooted in a specific commitment. On Notre Dame’s campus, students often practice a daily Lenten Grotto visit. Resolving to practice a daily adoration hour (or half-hour), or a visit to a favorite church or chapel creates space for prayer in the daily routine. This miniature daily pilgrimage reminds us of the particularity of the liturgical season we are in, and the great feast for which we are preparing.
Last week in Mass, we read Mark’s story of the rich young man who begged Jesus for the secret to eternal life.
Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him,
"You are lacking in one thing.
Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor
and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."
At that statement, [the rich man’s] face fell,
and he went away sad, for he had many possessions. (Mark 10:21–23)
Spiritually, the chief goal of a Lenten discipline, whatever form it takes, is to pry ourselves away from those possessions—interior habits, exterior habits, addictions, dependencies, and desires—that pull us back from the single-minded pursuit of clinging to the joy of Christ.