Are you wondering what to do for Lent? (Try this post instead if you are looking for some Lenten decor ideas.) As the busyness of life spins on, it can seem too complicated or too hard to figure it all out. Don’t let this important season slip by unobserved, or thoughtlessly observed by giving up some token sacrifice.
Before we dig into some specific ideas centered around the three traditional Pillars of Lent this year, let’s clear up a few things, shall we? There are a lot of misunderstandings about the Catholic Church, and Lent is definitely among them.
Some Misconceptions about Lent
“The Catholic Church has so many rules. So legalistic. If only Catholics knew the freedom of the Gospel of Grace.”
Ever heard this? Of course you have. But here is why Lent isn’t legalistic:
Legalism is the belief that it is your adherence to a set of manmade rules that saves you from hell. So, if you think that turning down a cheeseburger now and then is your ticket to heaven, you have a problem, friend. Take this up with your priest, he can help you out. Your spouse, if you have one, might also have an idea that this grave cheeseburger sacrifice of yours just won’t quite cover your sins. 😉
The Church teaches that you are saved by Jesus, actually, though, not by fish. Yet she still prescribes penance anyway. So, if the Church believes BOTH that you are saved by Jesus AND that you should fast, the fasting isn’t legalism. Right?
“But the RULES. Why so many rules?”
Well, it’s not that many, really:
- There are two required days of fasting ALL YEAR. (And if you are unfamiliar with Catholic fasting, it’s pretty gentle. You still eat, just less. In our family we call it “fasting lite.”)
- Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent are pescatarian – vegetarian or fish only. It’s a form of penance that we all do together. Further, all Fridays outside of Lent (except a few special ones) are days of penance where you can abstain from meat or choose another alternate penance.
Um, that’s it. Those are the requirements of Lent. You don’t have to get ashes (but why would you not??), you don’t have to give up chocolate and wine, you don’t have to do anything else. Unless you haven’t been to confession since last Lent, in which case you better hoof it, buddy.
The other things we do for Lent are not strictly required. They are an opportunity; a hard but important chance to focus on prayer, penance, and almsgiving. It’s the spiritual equivalent of choosing to pick up the kettlebell instead of the Chex Mix, and it will have similar benefits to your soul. (Reality check: I am eating Chex Mix while I write this, and my kettlebell may have a bit of dust on it.)
What we’re really supposed to do for Lent
Everyone knows it, right?
You give up chocolate. Or maybe coffee, if you are a true ascetic. Like the time when I, as a young Protestant college student, gave up caffeine for Lent. I didn’t have any particular understanding of the meaning of Lent, but it was back in the days before I was immersed in my Presbyterian rejection of all things liturgical, and I wanted to do something hard for God.
Well, it was hard. I was tired. I meant it for God. In my hardheaded zeal, it even led me to refuse to share tea with the gathering of Russian ESL students that I was leading. Looking back, I regret that decision. I didn’t even tell them why (fearful of spiritual pride, you know. Because it was such an amazing thing to do. *sarcasm).
Now, I’m not down on giving up chocolate or coffee. Not at all – but I learned years later that there is so much more to Lent than trying to do something hard for God, and hoping that you learn something in the process. There’s a deep and rich tradition in the Church that gives us real, meaty instruction on what Lent is all about, and how this season can richly nourish our souls if we take the time to understand what it’s really all about.
The Three Pillars of Lent
The traditional three pillars of Lent are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. In taking advantage of this season’s rich opportunities for service and growth, focus on these three things. It’s important to remember that Lent is not about me and the hard things I can do to myself. It’s about forgetting myself and serving the other. I don’t fast to bulk up my spiritual biceps; I fast to reveal to my soul my utter poverty before God. This is the spiritual health that we really need.
Here’s my plan this year, in case you all want to know. It’s pretty low key, because to be really transparent, I am battling a chronic health issue and I am also under a ton of stress. I don’t think being too strict is the best plan for me to be able to serve and love those around me this Lent, despite my natural inclination to do ALL THE THINGS. SO: here it is, friends. My gentle Lent, along with some thoughts from Pope Francis.
Prayer: I’ll be praying the Litany of Humility daily. I did this last year, and I didn’t like it. It’s hard. But I really do want God to work those things in me, so here we go again. I’m also planning to listen to my audio Bible on the way home from school every day, instead of only when I feel like it.
I created a free printable of the Litany of Humility for you:
Some words from Pope Francis about prayer in Lent:
“In the face of so many wounds that hurt us and could harden our hearts, we are called to dive into the sea of prayer, which is the sea of God’s boundless love, to taste his tenderness. Lent is a time of prayer, of more intense prayer, more prolonged, more assiduous, more able to take on the needs of the brethren; intercessory prayer, to intercede before God for the many situations of poverty and suffering.” – Homily, March 5, 2014 (Accessed HERE on 02/08/2018, 11:38 am
Fasting: We’ll go meatless on Wednesdays as well as our usual Fridays. But for me personally, I intend to spend a good chunk of my Lent reflecting on Pope Francis’ exhortation for Lent from 2015:
…if we’re going to fast from anything this Lent, Francis suggests that even more than candy or alcohol, we fast from indifference towards others.
…“whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades.” He continues that, “We end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own.”
In what real and practical ways can I fast from indifference? I’m not 100% sure yet. I’m hoping God will show me that.
Almsgiving: Sigh. (New here? Backstory to my sigh, if you want to know!) There is will a giving jar set up on our liturgical table for everyone to drop their pennies, and may God provide the increase!
And finally, a word from Father Mike Schmitz on what to do for Lent:
So don’t be intimidated by Lent! Embrace this season. It’s a blessing to our souls, our homes, and our aching world