If there’s one thing we think we know about Lent, it’s that we’re supposed to “give something up.”
We’re not sure why, but we pick something we like to indulge in, and resolve to “fast” from Netflix or chocolate or cursing or (insert current obsession) for the next 40 days. We think this is living Lent, and that we’re being good Catholics, but mostly we feel like we are missing the point.
Always the sure guide, we turned to the Catechism of the Catholic Church for some help uncovering what Lent is all about, and for some specific suggestions on how to ensure we take advantage of the spiritual opportunities available to us during this liturgical season.
Enter the desert
Lent, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is a time during which “the Church unites herself … to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.”
Jesus was “driven by the spirit into the desert” after his baptism in the Jordan, and he remained there for 40 days in solitude, without eating. The 40 days were really a preparation for what came next—the temptations in the desert.
Jesus did not succumb to the temptations of Satan in the desert, which the Catechism says “anticipates victory at the Passion.”
Before the victory, however, there was the forty days of fasting and prayer, and it’s this mystery we are encouraged to unite ourselves to during the 40 days of Lent.
The Catechism suggests various specific practices for lent: “spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies, pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works).”
We break these practices down into seven specific things you can do over the next 40 days to unite yourself to Christ in the desert, above and beyond just “giving something up.”
It should be noted that the first suggestion invites us to above all intensify our prayer life. To unite ourselves to the mystery of the desert means we are to enter the desert with Christ, and that means solitude, silence, and prayer.
This could mean dedicating oneself to prayer for a set time each day, making an effort to read Scripture, or spending an hour each week before the Blessed Sacrament. Look at what you currently do, and increase it a little bit.
Go on a retreat
Lent is the ideal time to get away from the normal routines of life for a few days and attend a spiritual retreat. Half-day retreats or parish missions are common during Lent, and are ideal moments to unite oneself to Christ alone in the desert.
Go to confession
Retreats are a good opportunity to also avail ourselves of “penitential liturgies.” This simply means, go to confession. If you can’t attend a retreat, take a half day or maybe a few hours to go over a thorough examination of conscience. Try to go to confession shortly afterward.
Make a pilgrimage
A pilgrimage is a physical journey to a holy place that reflects our spiritual journey toward heaven. Within the territory of the Archdiocese of Denver there are several holy places one could visit alone, or as a family, or as a parish community, that could serve as a destination for a half-day or day-long pilgrimage. Mother Cabrini Shrine is always a good choice, but also one could visit the Shrine of St. Anne, the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception (and the tomb of Servant of God Julia Greeley), or the Parish Shrine of Our Lady Guadalupe.
It should be noted that fasting comes after suggestions to intensify spiritual and penitential practices, and before suggestions to give alms and do works of mercy. Fasting should be done within the context of prayer, repentance and almsgiving. Fasting without these other elements is simply exercising willpower.
Giving to the poor is an essential duty of every Christian, and during Lent we are called to intensify the practice. Give to your parish, to Catholic Charities, to a food bank or to another charity of your choice. We often forget that giving alms can also include giving to a friend, family member or neighbor in dire need.
At the end of the list of penitential practices, the Catechism includes “charitable and missionary works.” These are works of service to the poor, or to your neighbor. The obvious suggestions include volunteering at a shelter run by Catholic Charities or your parish, or other charitable works.