Every year when Lent rolls around, we find ourselves facing the same question: “What should I do to live this season well?”
In Stephen Covey’s famed book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” he urges: “Begin with the end in mind.” A seminarian friend of mine introduced me to that wisdom as it applies to the spiritual life, and I have found it particularly relevant to the shifting of the liturgical seasons.
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What if, when Ash Wednesday rolls around, instead of asking, “What should I do for Lent?,” I pondered, “Lord, how do you want me to be different when Easter arrives?” The concept is this: Consider the end (Easter) first, so that when you begin the journey there (Ash Wednesday), you orient yourself toward a goal rather than simply checking a sacrifice off of a list. I think the answer to the latter question, when taken to prayer and opened to the Lord’s will, is the one that will help us to live the most intentional and fulfilling Lent.
Change a little habit
Let’s say you follow my first suggestion by considering what hopes Jesus has for you come Easter time. And you feel called to be a more patient person when Easter comes, or you discern a need to know the Lord’s rest more deeply, or you are yearning to hear his voice more clearly. Then choose small Lenten practices that will help you in that specific area of your life. After all, Lent is about preparing our hearts for Easter by conforming them more closely to Christ. So find one area of your life that needs to be conformed more closely to Christ and focus there.
I am advocating for simplicity. St. Faustina explains the impact of beginning with a specific yes to God: “Now I understand what it means to be faithful to a particular grace. That one grace draws down a whole series of others” (“Diary,” No. 263). It is in changing the littlest habits that we can allow God to spark the greatest changes in our lives. In fact, we all too easily fall into the fallacy that we must do something huge, and we fail to realize that we are often better off doing something small and letting God use that littleness for something much bigger than ourselves.
Suppose you leave behind the grandiose plans. Suppose you choose a goal and introduce one simple practice, cultivate one single habit to help you get there. Some of us can successfully commit to a half hour of spiritual reading every day (and maybe that is exactly what the Lord is calling you to this season). But if you are one of those gals who starts the season with soaring expectations and ends up feeling like a disgruntled failure because you chose something you won’t attain, what about starting more simply?
For example, choose one spiritual book to read, divide the roughly 180 pages by 40 days, and then read just four or five pages each day. Suppose you want to dive more deeply into Scripture this Lent. Commit to reading one chapter from the Bible each day. Suppose you want to begin a practice of keeping a prayer journal but never seem to be able to find the time. Commit to opening the journal and writing one thing each day, even a mere phrase — a way you saw God today or heard him speak to you or something you are grateful for. Suppose you identify a need for greater rest but find it impossible to stick to a bedtime. Make a start by choosing a time to turn off all screens. Once you begin with one simple discipline, some of the tension washes away and even more becomes possible.
Pray, fast, give
Some may already see a clear path of growth for this season. For others, it may be hard to align an area of desired growth with specific spiritual practices. Thankfully, the Church provides us with a framework for Lent: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. If you have discerned a specific goal but can’t figure out a concrete path toward that goal, don’t fret! Just introduce the trifecta of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, and offer those practices to Jesus, asking him to transform your heart in the specific area you have discerned.
In recent years, I’ve noticed an increased focus on devotional practices instead of “giving up chocolate.” This may be entirely my fault for being a certifiable chocoholic, but the advice to watch a daily spiritual video instead of sacrificing something specific (food or otherwise) seems incomplete to me. Yes, it’s a great idea to take up a habit of Lenten meditation (and I’m not minimizing the merit of any of the wonderful programs of Lenten reflection that exist!), but we are ultimately asked to fast and pray, not fast or pray.
Here is a list of little ideas for each of the three foundational elements of the Lenten season to get you started.
Ways to pray
- Open your Bible every day.
- Pray the Rosary once each week.
- Stop into an adoration chapel twice a week. To keep this truly simple, commit to stopping in rather than to praying for a certain block of time.
- Take a daily 10 minute walk, and use that time to simply talk to Jesus.
- Begin saying a quick prayer in the morning or evening with your spouse if you don’t do this already.
Ways to fast
- Give up a particular food.
- Delete the news app from your phone.
- Turn off all technology after a certain time in the evening.
- Only check your email once a day.
- Set a bedtime, and then start getting ready for bed a half hour before that time.
Ways to give
- Make a donation to a local Catholic charity.
- Pay a visit to someone who is sick or elderly.
- Make a weekly phone call to someone who may be lonely.
- Volunteer at a homeless shelter or soup kitchen.
- Find one little way to bring joy to your family each week.
Let the Holy Spirit lead you in creativity and simplicity (and ignore all my advice if he is calling you to something different!). And if you are able, choose Lenten disciplines that align with your Easter goal.
Living a “little” Lent is not a concession to mediocre or lukewarm spirituality. Rather, it’s a call to remember that God loves you in and through even the tiniest moments of prayer and sacrifice. Give him those moments this Lent, and let him work in your heart.