Here comes Lent. And, for not a few priests, here come parishioners with the quintessentially contemporary Ash Wednesday question.

“I need to lose a few pounds. Can my diet count as my Lenten sacrifice?”

Well. Can it?

To arrive at the right answer, you need to consider your purpose and your intention, explains Father Rick Wendell of Holy Angels Parish in West Bend, Wisc. If you’re really preparing your mind, heart and body for the Lord, he adds, you’ve got to make sure that “the journey from who we are today to who we are going to be in Christ seven weeks down the line is not focused on ourselves but focused on Our Lord.”

Franciscan Father Steve McKinley, rector and guardian of Marytown in Libertyville, Ill., puts it this way: In saying you’re going to fast because you want to make a sacrifice and also lose some pounds while you’re at it — killing two birds with one stone, so to speak — you put yourself rather than God front and center. This, he notes, misses the point of the practice.

“We have to bend our will to the will of God,” says Father McKinley. “Fasting, prayer and almsgiving are the vehicles by which we come to know God’s will for our lives more clearly. God is in the center, not me.”

Father Wendell points out that any time we deny ourselves a comfort or pleasure for the sake of our spiritual journey, we can expect some benefit — whether physical, mental or spiritual. He cites as an example becoming more focused due to giving up TV. But, he hastens to add, those kinds of benefits are byproducts of our journey toward Christ.

Pope Benedict XVI gets right to the point in his 2009 Lenten Message. “In our own day,” he writes, “fasting seems to have lost something of its spiritual meaning and has taken on, in a culture characterized by the search for material well-being, a therapeutic value for the care of one’s body.”

“Fasting,” the Holy Father continues, “certainly brings benefits to physical well-being, but for believers, it is, in the first place, a ‘therapy’ to heal all that prevents them from conformity to the will of God.”

Why Trumps What

Holy Angels parishioners David and Mary Young say they view Lenten fasting as a reminder. “When you get hungry,” says Mary, “you’re reminded of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.”

“The reminder,” adds David, a candidate for the diaconate, “serves in a small way to help us persevere and think how much Christ suffered for us.”

The Youngs point out that fasting can encompass more than food alone. One year Mary gave up listening to the radio and CDs on her 15-minute drive to work, instead dedicating the time to quiet meditation. The first week she reached for the on button 50 times. “But every time, I remembered why I sacrificed,” she says. She replaced each reach with a prayer. By the end of Lent, her Lenten discipline had turned into a good habit.

The Youngs’ fifth-grade son Christian, the oldest of their three children, has wanted to offer up something each Lent since his sacramental year in second grade.

“He independently came to wanting to sacrifice something,” explains Mary. “Last year it was soda. He made that conscious decision and was good about remembering.”

If Christian did slip, David explains, “We never made it into ‘You messed up.’ Lent is a period of forgiveness, too.”

As for specific suggestions for the Lenten fast, Father McKinley tells people not to “go crazy, like not eating for 24 hours. Make it realistic. Make your resolution something that you know you can keep with God’s grace.” That way, you can make spiritual progress so the “old boy” doesn’t tempt you to despair.

Another option: fasting from technology. Father McKinley advises a tally of the hours spent in the trance of a computer, TV or other electronic gadget. From this, an achievable goal for reducing that time can be set. Some may even want to give up their favorite device altogether.

The priest encourages people to read print books and ponder their baptismal vows to find things that need changing in their lives.

And how about fasting from busyness, making more time for Jesus with a “mini-retreat” every day, even if it’s only a little bit longer than we normally give him. “Write it on your calendar and treat that as any other appointment,” says Father McKinley. “In Lent, we should reprioritize to make sure God is top priority.”

Growth in Grace

Sometimes adding something makes for a fitting Lenten sacrifice. Father Wendell proposes working on relationships, for example. How often do we stop to see in our spouses all the wonderful things that led us to fall in love with them? he asks by way of example. And how are we doing in our relationship with God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit?

New life in old relationships: “Isn’t that what Easter is all about?” asks Father Wendell.

Pope Benedict teaches that fasting helps open our eyes to the living conditions of so many of our suffering brothers, thus helping us “to grow in the spirit of the Good Samaritan.” He encourages parishes to rediscover “the custom of private and communal fasts, joined to the reading of the word of God, prayer and almsgiving.”

The Youngs decided to commit to a “poor man’s supper” once a week during Lent, says David. Mary describes how the family will eat a simple dinner that’s noticeably less filling than their normal fare.

This supper reminds them to be in solidarity with the poor, as Pope John Paul II called for. For almsgiving, the family puts the money that would be spent on a regular meal in their Rice Bowl. That becomes a donation for the poor.

Try these suggestions and, at the end of Lent, you might not like your scale a whole lot better — but you will be assured that, as Pope Benedict says, fasting contributes “to conferring unity to the whole person, body and soul, helping to avoid sin and grow in intimacy with the Lord.”

Staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.