Lenten Practices

Lent is always a funny time. For some it becomes a kind of second-chance for new year’s resolutions. For others it’s a chance to give up sweets or set a goal to lose weight or exercise more. One of my friends is giving up Facebook, a popular Lenten practice. But what spiritual good comes from these actions? Let us look at the basics of Lent:

“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.” (Luke 4:1-2, NRSV)

Before beginning his ministry Jesus spent 40 days in the desert being tempted by the devil. He fasted as a spiritual practice to keep his focus on his Father and to prepare himself to fully give himself to his work. This is what Lent commemorates.

“[Lent is] particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies, pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works).” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1438)

Since Lent is a penitential season, we strive to deepen our spiritual life by acknowledging our sins and living in a way that helps us live more purposefully as committed Christians. As children we were encouraged to “give something up” for Lent. It was easy to understand the challenge of giving up chocolate to be in solidarity with Jesus (he certainly had none in the desert), but have we moved beyond our child-like understanding? The Church focuses on fasting and almsgiving but let’s not forget the proposal of “fraternal sharing”.

We can approach Lenten practices in a few ways:

  1. Agere Contra – This popular Ignatian term means “to act against”. It means that we can deliberately choose to go against what our tendency might be. It’s useful in avoiding temptation or bad habits but can also stretch us spiritually. So if you realise that Facebook is a bit of an addiction for you, you can practise agere contra and give it up for Lent. Maybe you choose to “go against” picking up that gossip mag. Or you find yourself lazy and about to turn on the TV; instead you “go against” and call a friend you need to catch up with. It will certainly stretch you, give you greater attention to your habits and tendencies, and allow you to focus on other things like spiritual reading or quiet time for prayer (or your family).
  2. Cold turkey giving something up – This should be approached discerningly. It shouldn’t be something that after 40 days you’re going to slide back into compulsively. You might want to use this as a time to give something up permanently that has become a vice (think lust or gluttony).
  3. Temporary Sacrifice – You may wish to give something up simply as a reminder for your dependence on God. This is where fasting and abstinence of certain foods can be helpful. The absence of this thing should bring us to a greater dependence on God.
  4. Adding – Instead of giving something up—which may end up being more trite than helpful—why not add something new to your life as a Christian: committing to daily Bible reading, eating more vegetables, volunteering, or exercising more kindness and patience. This would be a goal. but its purpose should be spiritual renewal, focusing on God, or focusing on others.

No matter what you do, the question to ask, if we look at it from Jesus’ perspective in the desert, is How does my Lenten practice prepare me to better serve the world as a Christian?

>> One Jesuit is giving up ESPN.com for Lent (via The Jesuit Post).

3 replies

  1. I like that you don’t focus on just giving something up. Many people “give things up” (and many actually give things up) but some of the other possibilities may bring greater value. A significant difficulty is consistency. Choosing a practice, which is too easy fails ourselves. Choosing a practice that is too difficult may discourage us from ever following through.


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