People often imagine Lent as a morose, wholly penitential, garment rending religious tradition within Christianity. In reality, it is a very different holiday. Lent stems from a practice found in the early Church around the third century, in which excommunicated penitent believers would prepare themselves to rejoin the full communion of the church through baptism. Excommunicants were required to fast, abstain from worldly pleasures, and utilize the Jewish practice of ashes and sackcloth for a period of forty hours before being cleansed by the blessed oil and waters of baptism.
There are several possible reasons why the number forty was chosen for this practice. In ancient times, the number 40 symbolized a long time, and thus may have been used as a substitute for telling the excommunicants that they needed to repent and wait a long time before being able to rejoin the church. It may have also been used as a way to symbolize Christ’s suffering of temptation in the desert for 40 days. As the church continued to grow, the association of Easter with the rebirth of baptism also grew, and the preparatory season lengthened. By the ninth century, it became common practice in the church for the whole of the congregation to participate in fasting, abstinence and the wearing of ashes in remembrance of their sin and mortality.
Lent became a significant portion of the church calendar for Western Europe in the centuries leading up to the Reformation. It was used as a time of reflection and almsgiving. The practice of abstaining from meat on Fridays has its roots in both the religious custom of fasting, and in the cultural custom of prolonging winter stores of meat, which by the beginning of Lent would be running low. In certain regions of the Church, the practice was extended to all Fridays, as a way to remember the suffering of Christ, and perhaps to aid fishing industries.
As the church enters into a new age, a time in which Christianity struggles against the temptation of total secularism, atheism, and continues to battle issues of corruption and abuse across many denominations; we should look to renew the season of Lent as more than an opportunity to give up temptations and pleasures. Lent is an opportunity, in the words of Pope Francis, for us to breathe again. It is a time for us to see the good that we can do, through the Grace of God, to be good shepherds and shepherdesses to his people, stewards of his creation and believers in Him.
Where should we begin on this journey of goodness? We can begin anywhere! All we have to do is take a small part of our life, and with God’s help, make it good and spread that goodness among the rest of the world, showing True Love to everyone. Below are ten ideas of actions we can take and good habits that we can form to have what the Catholic Apologist Matthew Kelly calls “Our Best Lent Ever”!
1. Pray Every Day
Prayer is a critical part of a healthy spiritual lifestyle. It is something that is customizable for all believers, regardless of their style of faith. Growing into a healthy prayer habit can be as simple as saying the Our Father once a day. A personal routine that I am trying to adopt, as a Catholic, is to start at least one new prayer tradition each year.
This Lenten season my goal is to pray the Rosary everyday, each morning wake up and say, “Thank you Lord for this New Day, full of possibilities and opportunities to Love you and everyone more. Let me be a blessing in someone’s life today!”, and close each day with a Litany of Love: “God Bless and I Love…” remembering to include not just the people I truly love, but also those people that some would call our “enemies”. These people might include the people that cut you off on the road, rude customers or clients at work, even people like Donald Trump.
A good prayer life doesn’t have to exist alone. It is always a good idea to pray with and for others, to take the time where you are to sit with that person and pray both individual and common intentions, and thank God for the blessing that you are in that person’s life, and the blessing that they are in yours.
2. Read Spiritual Literature
What is spiritual literature? One might expect this article to include a section on reading the Bible, but a well rounded and wholesome spiritual life is much more than that. Spiritual literature includes the commentaries and exegetical papers associated with the anthology of the Bible, but it also includes the writings of spiritual leaders and theologians. It is just as important to read the Confessions of St. Augustine and the theological writings of people like Eleanor Stump as it is to read the 23rd Psalm or 1 Corinthians. It is wise to include selections from a variety of faiths, as it sheds light on how other people view the world. A good Christian is an understanding and educated Christian.
Try each day to read a selection from the Bible, translation is reader’s choice. Start with your favorite Bible stories or psalms, then read the chapters that surround them on either side. If you don’t have a favorite, there are several other options. You can choose to read the selections from the lectionary, if you are of Anglo-Catholic persuasion, or you can start at the beginning of each section of the Bible, and rotate your readings. For ease of reading, the Bible can be thought of as the following parts: The Torah (Pentateuch), The Historical books, The Psalms, The Prophets, The Gospels & Acts, The Pauline Letters, The non-Pauline Letters, and Revelation.
In addition to reading from the Bible, try to read a commentary or homily on the passage you have read. Exegetical texts can be dense, but are fun to read! The homiletic writings of St. Ignatius and St. John Chrysostom are always good choices. Pick a selection from non-biblical Christian Literature to read over the course of Lent. Some good options are the works of C.S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, Matthew Kelly, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Joel Osteen. As a Christian who was raised in an intellectually encouraging household, I have always found it helpful to read collaborative works between Christians and non-Christians. One particular book that is useful during the season of Lent is The Book of Joy which is a culmination of discussion between His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and the Most Reverend Bishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, on finding joy in everything.
It is also important to read about how others view issues of faith, and understanding the world. There is no harm in reading the works of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the poetry and writings of Sufi Mystics such as Rumi, and the ponderings and premises of people like Bart Ehrman and Richard Dawkins. By exposing oneself to these other varieties of thought, one can strengthen their faith, or realize something that needs to change in their world outlook.
3. Write About Your Faith Experience
One of the best ways to get in touch with your faith is to write about it. Start a Lenten journal, or devotion, writing about your prayer life or the spiritual literature you have read. How are you feeling about your faith? Examine your conscience. What are three things that I did well today? What are three things that I want to do better? Keep a gratitude journal! Each night before you sleep write out the things you are grateful for, even if they weren’t necessarily positive.
React and respond to the world around you. Write out prayers or letters to yourself or others talking about how they or yourself interacted with God today. Make a poem! Imitate the words of the psalmists, sing your praises and bemoan your worries. Put anything you want on the page. Come up with questions you have about your faith, about yourself, about your relationship to God and others. Be unafraid to explore these things.
4. Talk About Your Beliefs and Faith
It is easy as Christians to feel alone in this world, stranded in brokenness or unable to bring the Joy of God unto everything we do. Humans are social creatures, we need community to thrive, if not survive. We are also thinking beings, who at some point in our lives will always have big questions that yearn to be answered. As believers we should talk to others about these questions, both to Christians and non-Christians. The goal of these conversations should not be to “convert” the other person to our point of view, but to gain further understanding of both your perspective and the perspective of your conversation partner. Talk with someone you are comfortable with: a parent or pastor, a friend or significant other.
5. Go To Church
Community is an important aspect of a healthy spiritual lifestyle, and corporate worship is the most common expression of this spiritual community. Each week, go to church! If you are Anglican or Episcopalian, go to an Evensong or compline on top of the Sunday Service. If you are Catholic, try and attend mass at least once a week in addition to the Sunday obligation. Try out different faith traditions. As a part of a well-rounded spiritual life it is good to be familiar with different denominations, seeking to find the commonalities between the faith practices.
Charity is a concept older than even the church itself. The practice of almsgiving has been an integral part of Judeo-Christian values since the time of Abraham. This Lenten season choose to give freely of your income. For many denominations and non-Christian religions, believers are required to give a certain percentage of their income to the poor, or to the house of worship by what is called a tithe. A tithe is generally 10% of the gross salary or wages of an individual, and is either given from the weekly paycheck or assessed annually. If you already give to your church, give just a little bit more this Lenten season. If your church participates in CRS Rice Bowls or in the Episcopal Relief Fund or in a similar program, take a box home and fill it with your spare change. If you shop with coupons, consider giving the money you would have saved to the Church. If you have a favorite charity, such as Habitat for Humanity, the YMCA or some other organization, give an extra little gift to them. Another possible avenue is donating to religious orders such as Little Sisters of the Poor, the Franciscans, the Thomists or the Jesuits.
It is sometimes easier to give of one’s money rather than one’s time. Over the course of these forty days, find a volunteer cause. It can be anything, from Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts to Special Olympics to Literacy Programs for the incarcerated. Do something to make the world a better place. Each week give at least an hour in volunteer service. It will surprise you how much of an impact one person can have on an individual, on a family or on a community.
After the Lenten season has ended, don’t forget the practices and habits that you have implemented. Continue to do them! Integrate them into your daily life, so that each year you can continue to build on them, strengthening your faith and growing as a Christian individual.