Simple and spiritually fulfilling ways to observe Lent
At its core, Christianity is a religion which revolves around suffering. From the beginning of the Scriptures we see how man’s own folly has condemned us to lives filled with suffering, and the long breadth of human history easily quantifies this.
Likewise, the Son of God was not a great conqueror of worldly princes nor a quiet scholar whose wisdom earned him a posthumous apotheosis. Rather, the great emphasis of the Christian religion is on the Passion of Jesus, his suffering and death at the hands of ordinary men and his subsequent resurrection from the dead. The only conquest of our God was over the only foe which we shall all inevitably face.
While the season of Lent should not encourage us to seek literal crucifixions of our own, it is a time for us to offer up our own sufferings to Our Father much like Christ did at Calvary. Especially in times such as these, with Christ’s own Church wracked with scandal, the sufferings of its faithful who must endure these tragedies are well known to Our Lord in heaven. Our God does not delight in our suffering in this world, for these are the pains men bring upon themselves through their rejection of God’s grace and embrace of the devil’s lies.
During this Lenten season, and no doubt for more going forward, we should offer our sufferings up to God for the sake of his Church, for only the work of the faithful can manifest positive change in the Church. Let us consider several methods to purify oneself for the sake of both ourselves, and our beloved Church.
It wouldn’t be Lent without the forsaking of that which we enjoy for the sake of our own improvement. While most Americans are familiar with the forgoing of meat on Fridays, we in the United States actually have it fairly easy when compared to much of the rest of the world, or even our forefathers for whom the Lenten fast was much stricter. Nevertheless, fasting remains intrinsically important to the cultivation of a pious and resolute character, as St. Paul VI said in 1966:
True penitence, however, cannot ever prescind from physical asceticism as well. Our whole being in fact, body and soul … must participate actively in this religious act whereby the creature recognizes divine holiness and majesty. The necessity of the mortification of the flesh also stands clearly revealed if we consider the fragility of our nature, in which, since Adam’s sin, flesh and spirit have contrasting desires. (Paenitemini, On Fast and Abstinence)
Perhaps beyond merely giving up sugary snacks, try forgoing artificial sugar as much as you feasibly can, or commit to going meatless for the entirety of the season. Denial of that which we crave of the most basic of levels will hopefully redirect the appetites elsewhere, bringing about not only a greater focus on more important matters, but perhaps some improvements to one’s own health, as well.
Penance and Reconciliation
You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:5)
We cannot bring righteousness into the world until we first confront our own sins. At a minimum, each Catholic is required to make one confession per year (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1457), and there is no better time to do so than in the leadup to Easter.
Those terrible temptations and faults of character which so regularly assail us may be dealt a grievous blow by offering our penance and humility to God. Much like Jesus taught us, we must look within ourselves and recognize our own weaknesses before we can find ourselves ready to brace the daunting challenge of helping our brothers and sisters in Christ, whatever that might entail.
Lent is not only a time of denial to discipline the body, but prayer to discipline the mind. An ideal form of prayer to consider this time is the novena. Often performed over the course of nine days or otherwise concerned with a theme pertinent to that particular number, novenas are series of prayers and devotions designed to keep thematic prayer on the mind over the course of nine days, with Marian or saintly devotions being particularly common themes.
Whether for centering the mind on your faith in the day-to-day or to kill time in the midst of quarantine, there are many lists of novenas available online to choose from should additional prayer be your chosen weapon of penitence. Catholic.org has a good list to get you started whether you wish to recite them yourself, or bring together friends, family, or co-parishioners to recite them together. Visit Catholic.org/prayers/novenas/ for the site’s many choices.
In tandem with novenas, attending Eucharistic Adoration serves as an excellent means of growing closer to the Lord through the consecrated host. In silence, before the Lord offer up your pain, your failings and your hopes, and they will be known well. Adoration has been shown to even quell violence where it is regularly practiced. There is no finer means of bringing your petitions and burdens to God than before the living Christ itself, a beacon of eternal light in bleak times.
Helping your local parish
The healing of the Church starts at the parish level, and that involves the work of ordinary parishioners concerned for the well-being and upkeep of their local church. In the short term there is the anticipation of the Easter season and the logistics of it which can often leave churches wanting for more assistance, but likewise consider how you can help your parish more long-term.
Knowledgeable in the faith? Consider helping with the catechesis of the young or of converts. Perhaps helping with the maintenance of the grounds or church interior is where you can offer your talents and skills, or helping to organize social functions at the parish.
Perhaps more than anything, try and take some time to get to know your priest better. We, too, often see our priests only a dispenser of spiritual graces, and not as another human being who may likewise simply need a friend with which to spend times of sadness and joy alike.
A period of sacrifice and renewal
Lent is a time of sacrifice, but not only for ourselves but for the entirety of the Church. The sacrifices of an individual are what provide renewal not only to the self but to those affected by our character and actions on a daily level.
Let us not view Lent as a time of toiling suffering, but as character-forging sacrifice, a trial from which we, and hopefully the Church, emerge stronger than before, prepared to face whatever challenges yet await us.