13 Little Lenten Sacrifices
There are a plethora of ways to practice Lent, even for those who can’t do a traditional fast.
For some people Lent is pretty hardcore. I have at least two friends who are Eastern Catholics—that is, they belong to the churches in union with Rome, but have their own liturgy and customs, including the custom of eliminating all meat and dairy from their diets during Lent. I distinctly remember watching one of these friends at a restaurant a few years back. We had all gone out after a choir event and, while the music had been appropriately Lenten, it’s fair to say that the meals being ordered were on the celebratory, wow-I’m-glad-we-pulled-that-off side. Some time after the rest of us had finished making up our minds and were chatting away, this friend was scrutinizing the menu. Ultimately he ordered a salad, asking the waitress to hold the crumbled bacon, the cheese, and dairy-based dressing. I can’t recall, but I’m hoping there were a few nuts or seeds in there somewhere.
I’ve always been too chicken to try that hardcore of a fast myself, and in recent years, with the complications of having children added to the picture, the idea of pulling it off seems vanishingly remote. Thankfully, there are plenty of other ways of fasting—and also almsgiving and praying, since, as I’ve been reminded in recent years, those are also traditionally parts of the Lenten observance. Eastern Catholics—do your thing. You are amazing. For the rest of us, here are thirteen weenie Lent ideas.
(I should add, by the way, that none of these ideas are original to me: from parents to confessors to friends to homilists, there are a lot of sources involved—and unfortunately, I don’t remember enough to credit them appropriately!)
1. Give up one thing at every meal. The idea of this approach is to offer up a little something every time you eat, so that you keep the idea “It’s Lent!” always in front of your eyes. At breakfast, it might be forgoing (or at least cutting in half) the honey on your oatmeal, switching from a nice coffee to a cheap one, or switching from your brand name cereal to the store brand (unless, of course, you prefer the store brand … in which case … You Know Your Duty). At lunch, it might be skipping the spreads on your sandwich, the dips for your veggies, or not heating up the leftovers. At dinner, it might be omitting the salad dressing or parmesan, or eating the bits of that you’d usually leave on your plate.
2. Postpone the pleasure. I’m not talking about postponing something good for you (e.g., a glass of plain water, or a snack for someone who gets low blood sugar), but do you really need those peanuts half an hour before dinner?
3. Go liquid. I’m not suggesting that you change all your meals to smoothies, but one salutary penance—not quite “fasting” but a step away—is not eating between meals. This isn’t feasible for everyone, however (pregnant women, teenage athletes, people with low blood sugar …). For those who do need something to tide them over between meals, sometimes a glass of whole milk plus a glass of juice will do the job—but without satisfying the craving to crunch on a snack, which is frequently half of what’s going on when people get the munchies at three of four p.m.
4. Ration your social media. This can also apply to things like checking the news or sports stats, if that’s your “temptation.” A lot of people give up Facebook or other sites—and good for them! But if you’re someone who uses social media to stay in touch with most of your friends or family (looking at you, stay-at-home moms!), what about limiting how and when you use it? No Facebook till after five. Or no Facebook on your phone. Or only check messages and notifications (i.e., no random scrolling). Or only use the chat function to actually, you know, chat with people.
5. Sort of fasting … from sleep, at least: Use the heroic minute. This one, from St. Jose Maria Escriva, has been around a while. For those who haven’t heard of it: the idea is to get out of bed immediately when your alarm rings (or your baby whines). Fun? No. Good for your soul? Absolutely!
6. And a final version of “fasting light”: https://tojesussincerely.com/2016/02/04/the-5-minute-rule-for-lent/.
7. Make your attention your alms. Most of us can think of people—a neighbor, a distant friend, an elderly relative—whose company is more work than fun. Make a list of these people, and commit to giving half an hour each week to one of them, via phone or in person. Schedule it on your calendar for a specific date and time, just as you would a doctor’s appointment. (If they are truly inclined to talk for hours, you can give yourself a hard-and-fast out, in the form of another appointment or job, and let them know about it up front.) Listen to them if they like listening. Talk if they want to hear you talk. Do it on Fridays, if it’s really that painful!
8. Give the moment (a variation on the above). When the cashier wants to tell you the loooonnng story about how he played Santa Claus for his two kids, listen. When your office mate wants to discuss his dog’s dental work, nod. When the two-year-old wants to hear “Blueberries for Sal” for the hundredth time, read it. (Obviously, if you’ve actually got to make it to an appointment, or get the report in, or start dinner—then do so! But consider, before making your escape, if you’re really escaping for the sake of other duties, or if you’re just, you know … escaping.)
9. Give stuff away. Find a parish store, a thrift shop, or a Goodwill near you that will take your unused things, and take them. Yes, yes, “minimalism” and “Kon Mari” are everywhere in the secular world, and it’s annoying. But St. Francis of Assisi did it first, and it can still be done with the spirit of Holy Poverty. If you’re one of those people who enjoys the bare IKEA look, maybe this isn’t so penitential. But if you’re someone who’s inclined to hang on to things “just in case” (and if you have the financial wherewithal) then this is the form almsgiving for you.
10. I’m not sure this one quite falls under almsgiving but … Finish the job. For example … Don’t just fold the laundry, put it away. Don’t just bring in the mail, open it, and take care of the bills right now. Don’t just read the text or email, respond to it.
11. Pray one Station of the Cross a day. Find a version you like, print out a copy, and put it up on your mirror in the bathroom or hang it near your sink. While you brush teeth or wash dishes, pray one or two stations of the cross. Even if you can’t make it to church for the real deal, it’s better than nothing.
12. Pray a decade in the checkout line. Or maybe you’re on public transportation, and it’s one of those short stops where taking out a book just doesn’t seem worthwhile. Or you’re walking downstairs sloooowwwwwly in front of your toddler who hasn’t quite mastered the job yet. Or you’re at a really long stoplight. Or a commercial just came on the radio or TV (and if it feels weird to be praying during X program … maybe pray specifically for the host/players/writers/actors involved? they could probably use it).
13. Hail Mary Facebook. Maybe it’s just my feed, but I see a fair number of prayer requests. As in, maybe every tenth post is a prayer request. There’s no way I could actually keep track of all of them—I realized long ago that my choices were (1) write every intention in a little book, like people carry when they go on pilgrimage, or (2) take care of each request then and there by saying a Hail Mary. I went with (2). And for some odd reason, I started noticing even more prayer requests than before … When I get to three in a row, then clearly it’s time to get off Facebook for something less … prayerful? (And yes, I do enjoy the irony of using Mark Zuckerberg’s soul-sucking invention in this way.) Nor does this practice have to be limited to explicit prayer requests: you can pray for anyone who posts about having a hard day, or who seems to be feeling down—even, and perhaps especially, for the person who just wrote that angry political screed.
That’s all, folks. Happy Lent!