Jennifer Fitz is the author of The How-To Book of Evangelization: Everything You Need to Know But No One Ever Taught You (Our Sunday Visitor 2020). Find her online at JenniferFitz.com.
My specialty in the spiritual life is Failing at Lent. I’m pretty at good at failing Ordinary Time, too, but there’s nothing like the deadlines and aspirations of Lent to help me understand just how lousy a Catholic I can be at times. Still, there’s a difference between a healthy dose of humility and reckless scrupling. These are my top five tips for how to make a good Lent, whether you’re any good at Lent or not.
1. Ditch the Fantasy Life
In a novel, if you want a character who excels at martial arts, corporate takeovers, or getting dinner on the table every night, all you have to do is write down the words. Suspension of disbelief is the technical term for the agreement between artist and audience that we’re not going to notice all the parts of the story that would never happen in real life. When it comes to Lent? Don’t be that novelist writing up an imaginary spiritual superhero.
You’re a real person, constrained by real limits that exist on your superpowers, and no amount of writing “I will spend an extra seven hours in prayer every day, fast on nothing but pine cones and ketchup packets for 40 days (no ketchup on Fridays), and give all my worldly possessions to the homeless guy begging on the corner” is going to change that.
Start Lent with the ultimate act of humility, honestly assessing where you stand spiritually at the moment, and what genuine constraints limit your choices for Lenten observances. Ask yourself what one or two things you can reasonably take on for the season?
2. Aim Medium
The more the Lent the more the Easter, so don’t cheat yourself of the chance to do some penance this season. Within the bounds of your state in life, go for a penance that hurts a little, but is achievable.
So that means that if you have lots of free time, money, energy and willpower, maybe your happy medium is going to involve some serious prayer, fasting and almsgiving. On the other end of the spectrum, if you’re absolutely crushed by life right now, maybe your penance is resolving to offer up a portion of your suffering for the good of souls. Most of us are in between.
A realistic penance is one that you can achieve most of the time, not just on your very best days when everything falls into place perfectly.
3. Ignore the Haters
For the next 40 days, all Catholic pundits are contractually obligated to discuss “The Real Meaning of Lent.” About 95% of the time, you should ignore these pundits.
Here is what you must do for Lent: You must attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation (if you can), and you must observe the prescribed days of fasting and penance (if you can) as outlined by your bishop or conference of bishops. This will include instructions on who is excused, and what, if anything, you need to do as an alternative (which is usually nothing, because you’re excused).
If after that you want to put on a hair shirt and roll in nettles, that’s bonus. If what you want to do this Lent is give up smoking, get out for a walk every day, or try to cuss 50% less, that’s your prerogative. You do not have to scruple over whether your fast is really just a diet, or whether you need to “take something up” instead of “giving something up.” The internet is not your spiritual director.
4. Embrace Half-Measures
Because life can be so variable and unpredictable, something you may find helpful is allowing yourself Lenten bonuses as the opportunity arises. You can resolve to read a particular devotional in its entirety this year, but you can also benefit from reading just a few passages of that devotional on the days when it’s helpful to do so. You can resolve to pray the Stations of the Cross every day or every week, but you can also benefit from praying the Stations just once or twice, if that’s all you can manage.
This isn’t an either/or, it’s a both/and. It’s beneficial to pick an achievable all-season-long penance, and it’s beneficial to seize the little opportunities for extra spiritual exercise as they occur. It is perfectly okay to read part of a book, pray part of prayer, or fast part of a day as a bonus addition, when God gives you that chance.
5. Put God in Charge
Sometimes when we think we’re self-evaluating, what we’re really measuring is our omniscience and omnipotence. Surprise: You aren’t going to pass that test. Human beings are not all-knowing nor all-powerful. On Ash Wednesday, you cannot know whether three weeks later your life will be the same or different. You may plan a Lenten observance that’s absolutely perfect for how life stood as Mardi Gras was winding down, but then God had other plans.
So go with that. If God opens the door for you to do more mid-Lent, run with it. If God decides you need to scale back and focus on humility and trust in divine mercy and providence, count it all a blessing. Sometimes Lent stings a little. That’s okay.
There’s only one goal for Lent, and that goal is Jesus Christ. You spend Lent looking for him, and since he is always looking for you, you’ll find him. Success.