The other day I was visiting with some friends at a party. One of them, a Catholic, mentioned that she and her husband had recently embarked on a cleansing diet, and had good results. Then she remarked, "It's amazing how much easier it is to avoid certain foods when you are not doing it for spiritual reasons."
Lent is here, that penitential season on the liturgical calendar when Catholics give up all sorts of things for spiritual reasons. And it is again that time of year when the questions start pouring into Catholic Answers' apologetics department about how Catholics should observe Lent. The unspoken problem at the root of many of the concerns often seems to be a need to know how quickly the Lenten penances can be chucked. Here are a few examples:
Can I have what I gave up for Lent on the Sundays of Lent?
When does Lent end?
Do alligators and muskrats count as meat?
What about eggs, cheese, and bacon bits? Do I have to give up those as well on days of abstinence?
(Nota bene: It is not the purpose of this blog post to answer these apologetics questions. If you are interested in researching on your own for the answers, start here.)
I sympathize with this annual Catholic dilemma over how to observe Lent because it reminds me of my very first Lent as a Catholic over fifteen years ago. With no experience in how to create a plan for Lent, I went seriously overboard. If I remember correctly—and it is an experience I prefer to forget—I plotted out a complicated ritual of daily prayer, spiritual reading, and personal devotions. If that was not enough, I resolved to give up caffeine for Lent. Not just chocolate, or tea, or soda, or coffee, mind you, but all caffeine. By Easter I was spiritually burnt-out, a nervous wreck, and in no mood to celebrate our Lord's Resurrection. All I wanted to do that Easter was mainline caffeine until Pentecost.
One lasting effect of my first Lent is that I have taken a laissez-faire attitude toward Lent ever since. Each Lent I have done the bare minimum required by the Church and not one bit more.
That is not a plan of action I recommend to you this Lent. Rather I recommend looking at Lent as a spiritual marathon and, as with any marathon, building up over the years to more stringent observances of Lent. I also recommend that the highest level of observances be done only while working with a confessor or spiritual director. So, let's review the levels at which you can observe Lent.
The Spiritual Couch Potato
At this level, you do what the Church requires and not one bit more. What does the Church require of you during Lent? The Church requires that you observe the days of fast and abstinence. Catholics in the Latin church fast and abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. They abstain from meat on the Fridays of Lent. Consult this overview of the Lenten fast and abstinence requirements from the USCCB. (If you are an Eastern Catholic, consult with your pastor for the fast and abstinence disciplines of the Eastern Catholic churches.)
If you have not been to confession in a while, you should review whether you have committed any mortal sins because mortal sins must be confessed at least once per year. (It would be better to confess mortal sins as soon as possible after you commit them, but start somewhere.) You may wish to obtain an examination of conscience to help you prepare for confession. Helpful hints for confession can be found in this blog post I wrote last year. Sacramental confession will ensure that you can receive Communion during the Easter season (CCC 2042), as the Church expects. If you need some motivation to get yourself off the couch and into the confessional box, go watch this video and then get thee to confession.
Contrary to Catholic urban legend, Catholics are not required by the Church to sacrifice personal pleasures during Lent. To do so is praiseworthy and can be meritorious, but it is strictly voluntary (and because it is voluntary such Lenten sacrifices can be set aside at will). But if you want to explore your options for doing more this Lent, the USCCB has posted a collection of Lenten resources appropriate for Catholics at all levels of observance.
When you have mastered this level, it may be time to consider moving on to the next.
The Spiritual Jogger
Many people live at this level of Lenten observance for most of their lives, perhaps with a few catnaps on the couch now and again. And that is okay. It may not be the ideal, but it is far better to spiritually jog through Lent and rest when you need to than to risk a spiritual crack-up that has you contemplating giving up Lent for Lent.
At this level, you do all that you did while on the couch, but you begin to add in new observances here and there.
You might choose to give up a personal pleasure for Lent, perhaps either a comfort food (e.g., chocolate) or a time-wasting activity (e.g., television, social media). Just be careful not to give up anything that could turn you into a cross for others to bear during Lent.
For example, Dorothy Day was once asked by her confessor to not give up smoking for Lent. Every Lent she became so difficult to live with while off her cigarettes that her community started praying for Day to smoke during Lent. Her confessor suggested to Day that she instead pray for the grace to give up cigarettes. So, every morning Day prayed to be able to stop smoking. One morning, after years of praying, she reached for her pack and realized she no longer wanted to smoke. She never smoked again.
If you find yourself searching for loopholes that will allow you to give up your Lenten self-denial (e.g., wanting a "break" from your Lenten penances on Sundays), you might take that as an indicator that you have taken on too much for Lent.
You could also add in extra liturgical celebrations. Perhaps you might attend a public recitation of the stations of the cross at your parish. Or you might check to see if there will be a Tenebrae service offered this Holy Week in your area. Many churches add an evening Mass on weekdays to their Lenten schedule to make it easier for laypeople to attend a daily Mass during Lent. Your diocese will host a Chrism Mass during which the sacred oils are consecrated by the bishop for use throughout the diocese in the coming year. If there is an adoration chapel nearby, benediction might be offered during Lent (and you can also pop in for a visit with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament).
You could also try to fit in some spiritual reading or film viewing. As with any worthwhile activity, it is possible to overdo here, but one book and one film during Lent should be a reasonable goal for most people. Here are a few Lenten book and film suggestions:
A couple of years ago, one of my co-workers sponsored a candidate for confirmation at the Easter Vigil who decided to spend the Lent before her confirmation doing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Rather than take on all of the works of mercy in one Lent, as this confirmand did, perhaps you might choose one corporal and one spiritual work of mercy. One possibility might be to participate in a 40 Days for Life campaign in your area. This year, the spring campaign begins today on Ash Wednesday and ends on April 13.
Suppose you are yawning right now, and wanting to say, "Michelle, I do all this already, and perfectly well. I keep the commandments, and am ready to take a shot at being perfect" (cf. Matt. 19:16–22).
The Spiritual Marathon Runner
At this point, you need a spiritual trainer. If you cannot find a spiritual director, you at least need a confessor to whom you confess on a regular basis (preferably often enough that you feel comfortable with him and trust his spiritual advice). Do not move up to this level without one.
Consider the suggestions that follow to be ideas to propose to your confessor. If he gives you the okay, you are good to go. If your confessor advises a different spiritual regimen, far greater weight should be given to his advice than to a blog post on the Internet. In the end it does not matter what you want to do; it matters what you and your confessor determine together is within your spiritual capabilities. As St. Alphonsus Liguori, who was a master spiritual director and a moral theologian, once said:
I tell you that you should implicitly trust in obedience your confessor. This advice is given by all of the Doctors of the Church and the holy Fathers as well. In short, obedience to your confessor is the safest remedy which Jesus Christ left us for quieting the doubts of conscience, and we should give thanks for it.
At this level, you do all that you did at the previous two levels, and then you might take on bigger challenges. If your health permits it (check with your doctor), you could set aside a day to subsist on bread and water. Or—again, health permitting—you could refrain from eating between meals. Or you could eat your meals without the extra garnishes, such as condiments, that make your food tastier. If you want to get creative with your Lenten fasting, here are 5 Creative Fasting Ideas. (Again, I emphasize, and I wish this blogger had emphasized it, that you need the input and approval of a regular confessor or spiritual director before you take up extreme or "creative" fasts.)
If your finances permit it, you could raise your level of almsgiving. You might combine extra fasting with almsgiving by donating the money you save when you fast to hunger-relief projects such as CRS Rice Bowl, an annual Lenten almsgiving project sponsored by Catholic Relief Services. Remember that almsgiving need not be limited to cash. While you are doing your spring housecleaning, you could look for items that can be donated to your local crisis pregnancy center, women's shelter, or children's hospital.
This may be the level at which you could take up daily devotional observances. (Yes, any daily spiritual regimen is best undertaken after consultation with a confessor or spiritual director.) Start with a daily rosary or Divine Mercy chaplet; perhaps build up to learning the Liturgy of the Hours. See if you can make daily Mass a habit rather than an occasional field trip.
I once overheard a conversation between a rabbi and a recent convert to Judaism. The rabbi asked the new Jew if she had celebrated Purim that year. The convert sheepishly said she had not. The rabbi did not scold her but merely said, "Maybe next year."
That may be a helpful attitude with which to approach Lent. You might not able to meet all the high hopes you had for Lent on Shrove Tuesday. Perhaps in previous years you have stumbled and fallen short of the finish line in your spiritual marathon. Or, like me, perhaps you have stood on the sidelines and offered water bottles and towels to others in the race. Just because you have not met your goals for Lent does not mean that you are a failure as a Catholic or should give up. Keep telling yourself whenever you need to, "Maybe next year."
Where am I with Lent this year? Well, I recently gave up soda, thinking it would be easier to do so a few weeks early as a running start at Lent. And I have given myself some ideas in this blog post for getting off the spiritual couch and taking a jog this Lent. I am nowhere near being ready for a spiritual marathon though.
Maybe next year.