Lent is like committing to a long run. We know it will make us healthier and stronger; we know it’s good for our heart. We believe that at the finish line—Easter—we will feel satisfied, and maybe even triumphant. In the beginning of the run, we feel light and determined, like anything is possible. In the middle, our breathing becomes labored, our resolve fades, and we wonder why we thought we could accomplish something so difficult.
We are tempted to walk, to renege on our Lenten promise. But if we persevere—keep running, keep “lenting”—we will end our 40 days with the deep joy offered by the resurrection. Here are some ideas for how to keep yourself engaged this Lent.
#1 Just for today
The wise tenet of Alcoholics Anonymous is applicable to Lent. Don’t look at all 40 days at once. Instead, look only at the day in front of you, and focus on your promise for that day only.
“I have a crazy busy schedule, especially in spring,” says John, father of three, who works in the tax division of his company. “But I decided for Lent that I need to start my day with 15 minutes of prayer. I downloaded an app on my phone, and first thing in the morning I press it. I always need to tell myself that it’s only 15 minutes, that it’s okay to sit down and do this today.”
A “just for today” philosophy also allows space for you to inadvertently fail at your Lenten promise for a day (or a week or two weeks) and recognize a new day is an opportunity to be true to the promise.
#2 Grab on to Mass
If your attendance at Sunday morning Mass had been spotty before Lent, commit to showing up for the six Sundays leading up to Easter. Mass offers an opportunity to recharge. When you’re at Mass, be present in such a way that you are open to what God may need you to hear during that Mass. Enter into the songs, and allow them to move you. Listen attentively to the scripture and to the homily, and pull your mind back from the to-do list.
“I used to dread going to Mass because it took a precious hour from my packed weekend,” says Kara, who admits to often being exhausted by the work of parenting a special-needs child. “But then I started looking at it differently; all I need to do is show up, and for once someone else has made all the decisions for me—decisions that hopefully will leave me with some inspiration or grace. I adjusted my view of the Mass. When else during my week can I sit down and listen to beautiful music, have someone read me meaningful scripture, and (if it’s a really good week) hear something in the homily I can hold on to? Spas are all the rage right now, but I’m starting to think of Mass as a spa for my soul.”
#3 Be of service
Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are the three traditional pieces to Lent, but connected to giving alms is service to the poor and marginalized. A Lent with a service component—whether it is participating as a family in a local meal program, or doing something individually like tutoring students in need—can make your other aspects of Lent more accessible.
Service can focus our prayer outside of our own needs, helping us to see our struggles within the context of the larger society. In terms of almsgiving, service with a particular organization can inspire us to make a greater financial commitment, because we now better understand the impact of the organization. Service work can pull us out of our sense of entitlement to an understanding of what true need looks like.
“I gave out mashed potatoes the last time our family went to serve at St. Ben’s,” says Jack, a senior in high school. “Almost every single person said ‘thank you.’ As I was putting the potatoes on their plates, I was thinking about what a small thing I was doing compared to all the food in our family’s fridge and cabinets, and yet these people were thanking me. It put things into perspective. I noticed I didn’t complain about stuff as much for the week after that.”
#4 Don’t go it alone
There’s a reason you often see runners in pairs; it’s harder to run alone. Share your Lenten journey with another person. It can be amazing how spiritually hungry people are. Making a commitment to share a week or two of Lenten focus with another person can be a gift to both of you.
“I emailed the parents in my daughter’s class to see if anyone wanted to come over to my house for an informal prayer group during Lent,” says Shannon, mother of two. “Three moms took me up on it; we met once a week to read the day’s scripture and talk about what was going on in our lives. It was so good to go deeper than the conversations we have along the sidelines of our kids’ games.”
#5 Fast for the right reason, from the right things
If your fasting isn’t going so well, stop and consider why you are fasting. Does it have more to do with your spiritual growth than with a desire to reduce your waistline? While fitness can be a welcome byproduct of fasting, the spirit of your decision to fast should be to bring you into a greater solidarity with the suffering of Jesus.
Choosing to abstain from certain foods or activities can be another way to help you remove things from your life that separate you from God. If eating between meals is keeping you from fitting into your favorite jeans, but isn’t really keeping you from God, consider looking more deeply into your heart for what you may have to give up to make more room for Christ.
This article appears in the March 2016 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 81, No. 3, pages 36–37).