Coming up with something to give up for Lent was easy as a child. I would give up my soda habit and tease my brother for his foolish lack of foresight in giving up all sweets. Didn’t he know Lent was 40 days? That was way too long to go without chocolate.
Maturing in Lent
As I grew up, the question became more complicated. I learned somewhere along the way about the idea of centering Lenten penances around prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, but those concepts were still hazy to me.
Among my college friends, it was popular to set wildly demanding Lenten practices for ourselves. One friend had a list of about a dozen things she was giving up for Lent taped above her dorm room bed. Another year, my housemates and I did a communal penance bowl that we had to blindly pick from each morning. “No furniture for a day” was really more fun than penance, but woe betide the unlucky person who picked “Cold shower.”
At other times, Lent became almost like a Catholic January 1st, with everyone setting “resolutions” rather than adopting spiritual practices. Yes, some of these were spiritually-minded, but often they had secondary goals like saving money by not going out to eat or losing weight by fasting from sugar.
A Desire for Deeper
As much as I probably grew in my relationship with God through all those Lenten practices—both the good Lents and the spectacular failures (deciding to give up bedding for Lent was deeply ill-advised and lasted only a few days)—something about the way I did Lent each year seemed scattered. Few of the practices seemed to have any effect past the end of the season. The more resolution-like ones lasted about as long as most New Year’s Resolutions once Easter had arrived, and the deeply penitential ones often seemed pointlessly hard with no clear direction.
One year, as I browsed the typical Lenten reading materials that parishes distribute, I read a line about Lent being a time to focus on what is specifically preventing you from having the best possible relationship with God. This struck me as obvious enough in the moment, so I brushed past it. But over the next few days, something shifted into place.
For Lent, I would identify the one thing that most hindered my relationship with God, and I would focus all of my attention on that.
That very first year, I spent hours in the Adoration chapel, trying to discern what was the most persistent difficulty in my spiritual life. Finally, I settled on the idea of hunger. I’d been reading about the Saints desiring God so deeply that it felt like a physical need, and I wanted to feel that. So that Lent, I designed what I did around a theme of “Hungering for God.”
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Choosing a Theme for Lent
This led to a practice I continue using today of theming my Lent around my biggest spiritual obstacle. It has taken many of the intervening years to refine the practice, but each and every one of those years has been a time of growth.
I’ve had themes such as:
- Entering the Desert
For each, I chose practices for Lent that specifically addressed those spiritual needs.
Narrowing the Focus
After a few years, I decided to limit myself to exactly three practices, one for each of the traditional focus areas of Lent: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
The year I picked “Order,” for example, I decided to read the Gospel for the day each morning and write a few lines about it as my prayer practice.
For “Detachment,” I fasted from listening to the radio in my car to part myself with a small worldly comfort in favor of silence.
When my focus was “Discipline,” anytime I was annoyed by someone, I committed to giving $5 to a charity that reminded me of something that person would care about.
One particularly fruitful Lent, “Only Jesus” was my theme, and my form of fasting was requiring myself to take any significant events in my life before Jesus in the Adoration chapel before texting any of my friends for input.
Sometimes my choices were specific and demanding, while other times they were intangible and difficult to define. But all were directed towards my one identified spiritual theme or battle for that year.
Worth the Struggle
There are some times when Lent still feels like a struggle, when I wonder if I’m ever really growing in relationship with God. And my practice, even when it is the most fruitful, is still, at its core, imperfect. But I think that’s part of the point of Lent.
This Lent, identify what is most keeping you from God. Then, focus all your prayer and attention on fighting that obstacle. Go out into the desert for these forty days and wrestle with it. Use the unique grace and gifts of this penitential season to give you strength as you draw closer to the Lord through this time.
Let this be the year that our Lenten practices don’t dwindle away and stop after Easter like the most well-intentioned New Year’s Resolutions. May they instead continue to bear fruit in our spiritual lives.
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Abigail Saffert is a grad student turned college writing instructor turned retail manager. Her Catholic Studies background, her M.A. in English, and the unnecessary amount of library cards crammed into her purse testify to her lifelong love of reading and writing. She appreciates that there’s a patron Saint for coffee houses because she thinks it justifies the amount of coffee she drinks in a day.