As you are most likely aware, Lent is a liturgical season in the Catholic Church that comes before Easter. Officially, it begins on Ash Wednesday (which is March 1st this year) and ends on Holy Thursday (April 13th), lasting slightly longer than 40 days. Since the date of Easter moves based on the cycles of the moon, the dates of Lent will be different every year. The meaning of the word “Lent” is from the old English meaning length and this is, of course, an allusion to the lengthening of days during this period. As the days get longer, there is more light and less dark. Similarly we are called to grow in faith and grow the light of Christ in our lives, while reducing the darkness of sin.
The season of Lent is a penitential season, meaning that the faithful are asked to participate by performing some kind of penance. Traditionally this has involved giving something up, which could be a special treat or a bad habit that gets in the way of spiritual growth. Growing in self-discipline and learning to offer up the “suffering” of these minor sacrifices is the goal of this spiritual exercise.
In our culture many attach a great meaning to the New Year, making resolutions involving healthy habits of eating and exercise are quite popular. However, if a person were to go to gym on try to do 90 minutes of intense exercise as a beginner, they would either injure themselves or become so sore and exhausted as to be unable (or unwilling) to come back. Think of Lenten practices as spiritual exercise. You are trying to get your mind and soul in shape. Therefore, a similar set of rules should guide you –
- Start slow and build up
- Vary your exercise for maximum benefit
- Don’t obsess over the numbers
In starting your spiritual exercise routine, start with a few things that you can easily integrate your daily routine. Adding morning and/or evening prayers, short biblical readings and other things are simple and effective if you’re not already doing them. While giving things up does have a great benefit, we need to also vary are spiritual exercise program by adding acts of service, prayers, or spiritual reading because growing in your faith involves adding good practices as much as it requires eliminating the less desirable.
If you are searching for something new this Lent, here’s a list of possible ideas:
- Fast from “noise.” We live in a society of over-stimulation, so turn off the television and radio (or turn them to EWTN) for 30 minutes a day (or more).
- Take a break from social media, either totally or impose time limits.
- Exercise and prayer. If you do physical exercise, begin and end that time with prayer.
- Read a book or watch a movie on the life of a saint.
- Try turning out the lights and television 30 minutes early, lighting a candle and spend time in prayer with your spouse.
- Men’s groups. Classes at a gym are popular because the group helps motivate you, this is the same in your spiritual exercise program. The Order of Lepanto, Knights of Columbus and other solidly Catholic groups will help you with that spiritual motivation.
- Pray for Catechumens. There are catechumens who are preparing to enter the church at Easter, pray for them and their sponsors.
- Visit someone in a nursing home or in a hospital.
- You can find a local homeless shelter, soup kitchen, or crisis pregnancy center to donate your time to.
- Daily Mass. You can go to daily Mass once a week or more often as your schedule allows.
- Eating out. Try fasting from eating out and then donating the money saved to a ministry or apostolate.
- The Rosary is a powerful prayer and you could add it once or twice a week. You can pray it alone, with your spouse, or even better you can pray it as a family.
- Stations of the Cross. This practice is available at most Catholic churches during Lent, so take advantage of it.
In thinking of this like an exercise routine, engage the Holy Spirit as the “personal trainer” in your journey. When you go to the gym, or advance through martial arts, a coach or mentor helps you to learn, perfect, and then grow to the next level while addressing short-comings along the way. Pray for the Holy Spirit to work similarly in your faith life – ask Him to show you what He wants you to work on. God has a plan for your life and He can help you grow towards it, ask and be open. Also, like any good exercise routine, don’t stop when you reach your initial goal. Make your new faith practices part of your regular life when we get to Easter so that you can enjoy a deeper, richer Christian life.