Don't look now, but Lent is nearly upon us. Here are a few ways to make sure we get to the end of these 40 days a bit holier than we were when we started.
1. Choose Lent Disciplines that Challenge You
It took me a while to understand that tendency folks seem to have of choosing mortifications that we kind of wanted to do anyway. Personally, I have to watch how I do fasting. I don't have a particular attachment to food and since childhood I've never cared much for meat.
So for me to put great focus on fasting or giving up meat for Lent wouldn't be very productive, especially if I allowed myself to feel awfully proud of what a terrific job I was doing. And especially if I focused on that instead of other disciplines that would help with areas of my own character which need more work.
Here's how St. Francis DeSales puts it:
". . . we all color devotions according to our own likings and dispositions. One man sets great value on fasting, and believes himself to be leading a very devout life, so long as he fasts rigorously, although the while his heart is full of bitterness; -- and while he will not moisten his lips with wine, perhaps not even with water, in his great abstinence, he does not scruple to steep them in his neighbor's blood, through slander and detraction. Another man reckons himself as devout because he repeats many prayers daily, although at the same time he does not refrain from all manner of angry, irritating, conceited or insulting speeches among his family and neighbors. This man freely opens his purse in almsgiving, but closes his heart to all gentle and forgiving feelings towards those who are opposed to him; while that one is ready enough to forgive his enemies, but will never pay his rightful debts save under pressure. Meanwhile all these people are conventionally called religious, but nevertheless they are in no true sense really devout."
For me it would be more of a mortification to EAT meat every Friday than it would be to give it up. But, since the Church didn't ask my opinion and she still requires abstinence, I've found that it is still beneficial to me as an exercise in mindfulness. I can't tell you how many times I wouldn't eat meat all week, then forget and eat it on Friday.
Now, I plan ahead what our family meals will be and remind myself all day long that it's Friday so I can't take that free sample of beef jerky at Costco and if the husband and I eat out, we need to go for sushi not steak. I am a big fan of sushi, so eating it isn't a mortification, but choosing it because it's Friday and remembering why Fridays matter is a benefit in itself.
For me to get the most out of my Lenten disciplines, I need to choose things that are NOT secretly what I would just as soon be doing anyway. This year, I'M WORKING ON NOT YELLING. Oops, sorry.
2. Take it Easy on the People Around You
In a similar vein, it's easy to fall into the trap of choosing disciplines that are more troublesome to my family than they are to me. A few years ago I excitedly suggested that if not eating meat on Fridays in Lent was good, not eating meat AT ALL in Lent must be even better. Since I don't care about eating meat, it was an easy suggestion to make. But since I am in charge of the care and feeding of my family, I was choosing a mortification for all of us that was going to be much, much harder on my husband that it was for me. He gently helped me to understand this. He's a swell guy.
St. Josemaria said, "Choose mortifications that don't mortify others."
There are plenty of good and holy devotions that just wouldn't be proper in my state of life. It would make my family suffer if I decided to spend three hours a day in prayer before the blessed sacrament. That might be an appropriate discipline for a contemplative nun, but I have obligations to my family that I would have to neglect, other people would have to suffer for me to do that. It would probably be equally inappropriate for a contemplative nun to strive to play more board games and drink more wine during Lent, but since those are things that encourage ME to engage more with my children and my husband, in defiance of my tendency to run off and do stuff, I think they will be beneficial to me.
And in our family, we temper our voluntary Lenten disciplines in social situations. If I had, for instance, given up dairy for Lent, I would not corner the hostess of a giant St. Patrick's Day party and ask her to give me a rundown of the ingredients of each and every dish on the buffet, some of which were brought by other people <cough-this happened-cough>. I'd just smile and eat the food at the party and say thank you and if I was feeling particularly motivated I might take a cold shower to make up for it. (Just typing 'cold shower' gives me the willies, I like nice hot baths, even a hot shower is a mortification for me.)
3. Focus on YOUR Lent of THIS Year
Dwija beat me to the punch on this one, but she's so, so right:
"For me the first thing to keep in mind is that observing Lent is neither a competition between you and anyone else NOR is it even a competition between you and yourself. Either of these approaches can lead to undue focus on self rather than on preparing for the glory of Easter by focusing on Jesus. So instead of a competition, we ought to strive to frame everything in terms of preparation."
Our whole family always gives up sweets and snacking during Lent, but when Lent arrived in the midst of my oh-so-very barfy Frankie-pregnancy, my spiritual director ordered me to knock it off and eat what I wanted to eat. I was making my family suffer even more than they already were suffering because of my illness, because now I was even more miserable and fretful because the only things I could keep down were on my banned list.
So that Lent, I ate whatever I wanted to eat, and focused instead on trying to handle my barfiness with a little more grace and aplomb. Preparing food for other people to eat was mortification aplenty.
I read about Lents of old in Kristin Lavransdatter and Story of a Soul, and I hear the sweet Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal who came to visit us joke about how they have to tighten their cinctures during Lent and I think, "Wow, I am a total I wuss. I need to have a much more EXTREME Lent. THIS Lent I'd better take it up a notch."
But that's not true. God put me in Twenty-First Century America, not in Medieval Norway. He put me in a home in the suburbs with a husband and seven kids, not in a cloistered convent or a cave in the desert. I have to practice Lent in a way that won't be inconvenient to the people around me.
4. Practice Self-Discipline not Self-Punishment
Suffering exists in this world and sometimes we have to deal with it. If we approach it right, and with God's grace, we can handle suffering in a way that makes us better people. But God does not WISH us to suffer. He does not will our suffering, He wills our holiness. If I discipline myself with my heart and my mind focused on God and the people around me, Lent can be a time of real renewal. But if I'm just causing myself and the people around me to suffer, I'm unlikely to do any of us much good.
I wrote more about it in this post, but the husband says I shouldn't quote myself, so you'll have to click over.
5. Take Up, Don't Just Give Up
The focus is usually on what to stop doing for Lent, but I think there's just as much benefit in starting things for Lent too. My daily Mass and our family Rosary were both started as Lent disciplines (and Lent is always when they get started again if they've been being neglected). The morning offering, the Angelus, an examination of conscience, spiritual reading, Bible reading . . . Lent is a great time to see if any of them might fit into our lives, again or for the first time.
THIS Lent, let's win. Let's have a Lent that will benefit ourselves and the people around us in our particular lives and our particular circumstances. Let's see the big picture and remember that it's not about not eating chocolate, it's about WHY we're not eating chocolate. Let's do Lent right, and hope to find a better version of ourselves this Easter.