How to address the most asked question of Lent

Fr Laurence Freeman, OSB
March 8, 2011

“What are you going to do for Lent?” It’s a question often asked today with a slightly scoffing tone. The idea of ‘spiritual exercises’ or asceticism has become caught up with associations of negative religion, self-rejection or self-righteousness.

Yet the question is often asked. It connects to a deeply felt need especially among people with a conscious spiritual practice and it is an important question.

E-Journey through Lent

Lent, originally meaning “time of lengthening days,” is the new season of renewal and new growth, both in nature and in things spiritual, a desire to renew our lives in personal friendship with the Lord. Lent is the time to amend our ways and to take fresh heart, as we strive to change for the better.

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For Christians, Lent offers an opportunity for renewal and to recharge one’s commitment and devotion to the Way. We should feel both physically and psychologically better because of a well-practiced Lent.

But it is hard for many modern people to understand Lent and why they dismiss it as only ‘giving up’ pleasures that often seem harmless or childish. We need a liturgical and sacramental perception of things to make sense of this.

By contrast, a liturgical sense of time weaves a sacred story; for Christians it is an historical narrative into our daily and seasonal lives. As the moveable feast of Easter reflects, based as it is on the phases of the moon, this can also remind us that, despite the artificial environment we have created, we also inhabit a natural world that sings in our blood.

In Lent we not only remember Jesus going into the desert to be tempted, but also understand that we too have a personal desert to enter, one in which we learn to wrestle with those forces of darkness that anyone interested in enlightenment has to face. The old language of wrestling with Satan or ‘spiritual warfare’ needs to be paraphrased today but it should not be too quickly dismissed because it touches real aspects of our personal growth and healing.

A good preparation for understanding Lent, after reading the prophet Isaiah, Chapter 58,  is to read the Gospel accounts of  Christ’s temptation in the desert:  Mt 4:1-11, Mk 1:12-15 and Lk 4:1-13. These different accounts reflect a variety of possible interpretations and would make good material for reflection in the four days between Ash Wednesday and the first Sunday of Lent.

What is Jesus being tempted by?
What is the basis of His rejection of these falsehoods and illusions?
On emerging from the desert why is He ready to begin his mission?

Lent is a time when we refine and purify the spiritual senses and identify the habits or patterns that pollute them. It is not a time for self-punishment or repression. Today especially, the human psyche is too fragile for that.

E-Journey through Lent

Lent, originally meaning “time of lengthening days,” is the new season of renewal and new growth, both in nature and in things spiritual, a desire to renew our lives in personal friendship with the Lord. Lent is the time to amend our ways and to take fresh heart, as we strive to change for the better.

Read the prayer | More Prayers | More Reflections

To repent means not to feel guilty, which is a waste of time and spirit. It means to be honest, clear-sighted and courageous enough to change direction.

Before changing direction it is best to pause. Lent is a time above all to give more time than we normally think we can afford to the mechanics of our spiritual life. It is not only about giving up but also of doing something more.

Sometimes the two can be nicely balanced, for example, less time watching television, eating less and better, living and communicating more healthily.

Of course, good intentions are more likely to be sustained when they are realistic. It is better to slow down gradually before changing direction or you may simply go into a spin. The aims of Lenten disciplines are to allow the experience of knowing that we are loved, to arise and envelop us. This knowledge (however it comes to us) is in fact the ‘knowledge of God’.

The principle of all ‘self-denial’ serving a positive end is moderation. But sometimes a period of abstinence is the best way to restore balance. Is there something you do to excess?

Focus on that and see if ‘giving it up’ for Lent would help restore a moderated and therefore enhanced enjoyment. Are you aware of something you would like to do regularly and never seem to make enough time for? Call that to mind and see if you really want to make time for it.

Don’t forget the other skilful means that the Christian tradition has always emphasized, like almsgiving, which is the giving and letting go of time or money to those in greater need than you. This is especially useful in an age of consumerism and material anxiety. It is an opportunity to practice real giving – anonymously, modestly and without asking anything in return, even a good conscience.

“Good Works” is an active exertion of yourself towards the undoing of an injustice. It took Christians nearly two millennia to realize that slavery did not fit with Gospel values. This Lent, you might not be able to bring peace to the Middle East or reverse global warming, but you can help; and doing so might enlighten you to a responsibility closer to home, in the family, your community or workplace.

Fr Laurence Freeman, OSB is the Director of the World Community for Christian Meditation. This was first published in The Tablet. www.thetablet.co.uk