Mr. Shaun McAfee, O.P. is the author of Reform Yourself! and other books, is the founder and editor of EpicPew.com, and contributes to many online Catholic resources. He holds a Masters in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. Shaun has made his temporary profession as a Lay Dominican and temporarily lives in Italy.
1. Go big
Give up something that will really challenge you. It absolutely matters what you choose to give up – it does. The point of “giving up” something for Lent is detachment in order to re-attach your heart, mind, and soul to the Lord. Give up something that you depend on (no, not like oxygen) or something that you’re highly attached to (perhaps you’ll have to miss that Season finale of The Walking Dead) but whatever you choose to give up, choose something that challenges you, step up, show up, and be blessed on Easter for your hard work!
2. Don’t go too big
You don’t want to fail, right? The quickest way to fail is to fail to plan and/or to plan too quickly. Think your Lent through. Whose birthday is coming up? Are non-Catholic friends visiting—how will you observe your fast as a witness to your faith? Start to pray immediately—and rest your heart—as you begin to think through each week of Lent. What’s key is to not go too big to the point where you fail, perhaps more than once, and are disinterested or discouraged from your Lenten activities.
3. Mortify yourself
Mortification is not dead—it is absolutely essential to the Christian life. Every. Single. Saint practiced some form of mortification and you should, too. Put a rock in your shoe. Have an uncomfortable object in your bed?—keep it there. Seek harsher penances. Sleep without a pillow—St. Gonzaga made a pillow from a board of wood, and put that wood on his back as he slept—mortify your flesh.
Fasting is not dead—it is absolutely essential to the Christian life. Every. Single. Saint practiced some form of fasting and you should, too. Really, the Church’s requirement for Lenten fasting is easy. In fact, the issue most Catholics have is not the observation itself, but remembering it’s a day to observe. Step up your fasting efforts: choose one day in the week to eat just one meal, or to skip a meal entirely. Mortify your flesh!
5. No feasting
On Sundays or at those delicious fish fries—sorry to those who hate fish—remember you are not there to be a glutton: you are there to contemplate the life and passion of the Lord, among other holy things. When we turn fish fries into feasts, we miss the point of Lent. Keep your parties low-key, and keep your diet in mind. On Sundays when your fast is relaxed, again, don’t overdo it.
6. Pray—and be silent
Make sure this Lent that your spiritual exercises are in full range of motion. Go to your local Catholic book store and get a prayer book, browse through it, and pray a few of the same prayers every day. Make these the subject of your contemplation. Speaking of contemplation, make an effort to take up a temporary vow of silence. Pick one day in the week when you speak only when it’s absolutely necessary (or not at all if practicable) or an evening or two where you devote yourself to silence and silence of your media. During this time, think of holy things: who you can pray for, your religious ambitions, hopes, the people you love, the lives of the saints, etc. Be silent, and enjoy this time of peaceful contemplation—you’ll be a mystic in no time.
7. Get a good book
I can think of one you’ll definitely enjoy and there are numerous others to include this bestseller. Get a book that you can read and think through at a comfortable rate; some people can read a lot and digest like a shark, while others need just the pith of spiritual devotions. Get a book your like-minded friends suggest, or find one with a cool cover. Just kidding—get a good book though, and enjoy.