I was fortunate yesterday to have time to prepare and plan for Lent. As I was planning, it occurred to me that my plans for observing either Advent or Lent usually don't survive contact with the demands of life during a particular season. Despite this realization, I felt it was still important to approach Lent this year in an intentional way.
To be fair to myself, over the years my plans for Lent have gotten much simpler. I try to maintain focus on the three fundamental disciplines of Christian life: prayer, fasting, and alms-giving. In the end, even if I only do what the Church bids me do (fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and refrain from eating the meat of warm-blooded animals on Lenten Fridays) and perhaps make it to confession once or twice, I have observed Lent and prepared for the renewal of my baptismal promises at the great Easter Vigil.
Please, please don't ask me what I am giving up for Lent! If I choose to give up anything, it isn't anyone else's business. Equally as important as what one gives up for Lent is what one takes up, what one resolves to do or do more.
This year, my dedicated spiritual reading for Lent will consist of reading the late John O'Donohue's Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom and, beginning on 25 March, the Solemnity of the Annunciation, reading David Wilborne's A Virgin's Diary (reading snippets from this diary will take me to Christmas). Overall, I plan to spend more time in silence. I want to focus on fostering in my own life the spiritual the discipline of solitude.
As far as fasting, I plan to do it with some frequency. Even outside of Lent, I try to practice this neglected spiritual discipline regularly. In my experience, fasting is the discipline that integrates prayer with alms-giving. Just as with my decision not to drink alcohol (see "I am not giving up alcohol for Lent"), I attempt to tread lightly with others in my advocacy for fasting.
Since I am a deacon, I have many opportunities to serve in a variety of ways. And so, my alms-giving is usually about sacrificing something I like that I pay for and diverting that money to the Catholic Relief Services Lenten Rice Bowl collection. On the days I fast I also try to give what it would've cost me to eat that day. I also look for ways to serve that are not part of my routine. In other words, I look for ways to serve others that are inconvenient for me.
Every year for many years, the onset of Lent brings to mind a passage from an Ash Wednesday homily delivered many years ago now by the English Passionist, the late Fr Harry Williams. This passage is handed on by someone who is a long-time mentor, teacher, and friend:
It is a pity that we think of Lent as a time when we try to make ourselves uncomfortable in some fiddling but irritating way. And it’s more than a pity, it’s a tragic disaster, that we also think of it as a time to indulge in the secret and destructive pleasure of doing a good orthodox grovel to a pseudo-Lord, the Pharisee in each of us we call God and who despises the rest of what we areAnticipating Lent, I needed to be reminded that through Christ, God loves me as I am. God will love me no less if I choose to do nothing special for Lent. Jesus's death and resurrection are all the proof I need to convince me that God loves me.
God loves me in my weakness, my blindness, my deafness, my selfishness, my doubtfulness, my depression, my anxiety, my fears, my anger. Far from indulging me, God's unfailing love creates the possibility for me to love as I am loved, that is, it gives me hope that I can change. God's love convinces me I can be converted. If Lent can be said to be about something in particular it is about being changed, conformed more to Christ's image. This conformity is God's work of grace in me. I can only endeavor to cooperate with grace, which is why I have learned that my plans must be provisional and revisable, not absolute. Letting my plans become absolute turns them into an idol and may well, in a manner of speaking, lead me away from God. However, this is not to say that I shouldn't seek to muster the discipline to carry them out.
Lent is the time slay your idols, As Fr Williams indicated in his homily of many years ago, for Christians, the first idol that needs to be slain is the "pseudo-Lord," the inner Pharisee to whom many of us are often tempted to sacrilegiously bow. The god who despises you is named Satan. In Hebrew, שָּׂטָן (sâtan), means "accuser" or "adversary." Satan is the one who accuses you before God "day and night" (Rev 12:10; also see Job 1:6-12).
Lent is the time to understand for the first time or realize more deeply that eternal life is knowing "the only true God, and the one whom [he] sent, Jesus Christ" (John 17:3). It is only by knowing the only true God and the One he sent that you can fully live in the "glorious freedom of the children of God" (Rom 8:21).