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A Practical Guide To Lent
Fr Brian Traynor CP
Throughout the history of the Church the emphasis of the Lenten period has changed often. It was not always a 40 day portion of time before Easter, nor was the Lenten period always dominated by fasting, although fasting seems to have been an element of Lent.
The mentality of the pre-Vatican II Church encouraged Catholics to adopt a 'give up for Lent' mentality. Anything from a favourite television programme to a favourite beverage was voluntarily denied during Lent. Sometimes people chose to 'do something extra' such as attend one weekday Mass as their response to the penitential call of Lent. As well as voluntary denials, the Church laid down rules for fasting and rules for abstaining from meat during Lent.
There are still requirements regarding fast and abstinence laid down by the Church for Lent. As in other areas of our Christian life, it would seem insufficient to regard these requirements of law as necessarily being an adequate response to the invitation of Lent. In the same way the 'giving up' for Lent or 'doing something extra' for Lent deserves serious consideration so that it can be meaningful.
Perhaps a helpful mentality is to align the 40 day preparation for Easter with the final intense preparation of the catechumen, who is received into the Church at the Easter vigil.
The Lenten period should be viewed by the catechumen as a time marked byprayer, study, fasting and humility. This is the time when he or she strives to draw close to God, through reflection and study of the Gospel, through personal assessment of spiritual growth and a wholesome life.
To make Lent more meaningful I would like to suggest a different approach. The last thing to do, not the first, would be to choose a Lenten penance. The reason for this is that if you choose the best 'action' for you to perform or not to perform, then you would continue this practice after Lent is completed. In other words you should use the Lenten period to choose the practice to perform, not just perform it for the Lenten period. If you would choose to add extra self-denial to your Lenten programme, I would suggest two things to be careful about:
The first is to guard against fanaticism and instead be guided by moderation. Christian life should not be hot and cold. It is better to strive to eliminate disagreeable habits or actions for 52 week of the year, not just six.
The second caution is against selecting practices without a proper understanding of the Lenten penance. If you choose to give up alcohol in order to lose weight - then this state of excess weight should be examined in the light of the remaining 46 weeks and how you really should be living. In other words, look at the real issue and see it in the context of your normal life.
The starting point in a meaningful Lenten programme is to agree that the end purpose is to grow into closer union with Jesus. To do this we can divide our programme into three areas for daily examination:
These are simply: MYSELF, OTHERS and GOD.
There are many variations on how this could be conducted, but in outlining one, perhaps the variations and adaptations can easily be ,made. We must accept in the first place that there is a need for prayer, study, fasting and humility.
FASTING can begin with the simple recognition of not over-eating. Other insights according to personal needs will unfold.
HUMILITY is the recognition that we share in God's life and possess a special dignity because of His gift. We are dependant on God for everything. Our successes and talents should always be cause for thanks and praise.
PRAYER should be a constant ingredient of our life. Much of our prayer can be active - responding with recognition for help, for thanks or with openness to God's will in our daily situation.
STUDY is the active reflection on the Gospel and how it applies to our lives. It requires at a minimum some reading of scripture and preferably some study of what we read.
We are faced with a complexity of moral and ethical situations today and we need to take the time and trouble to read and reflect on the issues that affect us. If for example, a major issue in your life is a deteriorating marriage, then some study of why it has deteriorated and how it could be restored would be a responsible action. Incidentally, such an action would be far more Christ-like and therefore far more appropriate as a Lenten practice than, for example, eating only one meal a day.
So, using these four ingredients, you could prepare for the Lenten period using a small exercise book, outlining a reasonable expectation of assessing your growth in the three areas of myself, others and God by the end of the first week. You could even make daily notes or make an assessment at the end of the week and new plans or resolutions for the coming week.
By the time you reach Easter you would have established a pattern that you might like to continue that involves setting reasonable personal goals and constantly assessing them in the light of your Christian commitment. You may well have reached some definite decisions about areas of your life that need serious evaluation or change. This is the time when you will be faced with the call of 'giving up something' or doing something extra', not for 40 days but as a life pattern.
In this way you can use the Lenten time to 'convert' yourself and feel renewed in mind and heart in a wholesome way that includes your relationships, your personal needs and your faith in Jesus.
Easter time, then will be for you, like the catechumens, a time of rejoicing in your commitment and celebrating your renewal if faith.
Brian Traynor CP