Living Lent in Community

If you’ve been around Christian circles for very long, you’ve probably heard some variation of the line, “There’s no such thing as a solitary Christian.” And while St. Simeon the Stylite and other holy hermits might disagree, the maxim stands for most of us. We need others to encourage us, to challenge us, and to correct us, loving us all the while. Those of you who are raising families and living in intentional communities know this–it’s the people around you who help you grow in holiness.

This Lent, why don’t you use that community to help you live Lent more fully? Instead of walking through Lent alone, talk with your family or your community about what you’ll be doing. Ask them if there’s a particular habit of yours that they think you might have an addiction to, a particular way of serving that might push you in just the right ways. Often you’ll find your kids know you better than you know yourself, as they point out your addiction to Netflix or your obsession with your phone. And only your wife would suggest that you offer to do all the midnight sheet changes for your mostly-potty-trained 3-year-old.

It might seem counter-intuitive to discuss your penitential practices–just showing off, some might say–but it also means if you fail there’s someone to call you out on it. And it might just challenge you to do something truly meaningful.

Case in point: the family of St. Basil. The Holy Family of St. Basil: (left to right, first row) St. Peter of Sebaste, St. Basil the Great, St. Basil, St. Gregory, (second row) St. Theosevia, St. Naukratios, St. Emmelia, (top) St. Macrina. (via)
Case in point: the family of St. Basil: (left to right, first row) St. Peter of Sebaste, St. Basil the Great, St. Basil, St. Gregory, (second row) St. Theosevia, St. Naukratios, St. Emmelia, (top) St. Macrina. (via) Be like this family!

Then there’s the fact that your community exists to make saints out of the lot of you. What better way to do that than to work together to grow in holiness? What if you picked something to do together–a family fast or a weekly community prayer time? Maybe Lent could be more than a diet, instead becoming a season where you all grow closer to one another and to the Lord?

So here’s my suggestion: print out this worksheet and go over it together. Give them out to your Sunday School class, your youth group, your high school students, your RCIA candidates, your catechists–anybody you know with a family. Or give it to the other teachers in your department, the people in your Bible study, the volunteers serving alongside you–anything that constitutes a community. Then brainstorm together. Talk through the list, add your own ideas, tweak the ones you find. Discuss what might be best for each individual and for the group as a whole. Take some time to pray–ten minutes or a few days–then come back with a commitment. Write out who’s doing what. Maybe even pray together over it and then sign it. And post it somewhere obvious with the understanding that you’re consenting not only to correct others (gently) when you see them fall short but also to be corrected.

What to Do for Lent

Obviously, people can do more than what they write on this worksheet. And nobody has to do anything. Maybe some people won’t feel comfortable signing on to the group penance. Take what you can get. But I think that when you decide to work toward holiness together you’ll find that your experience of Lent will be much more powerful.You may also be interested in my Lenten Boot Camp, which will help you work from 20 minutes of prayer a day to an hour of prayer a day over the course of Lent, and this fantastic family Lenten practices calendar, which has a different thing for your family to do each day of Lent.

Stations of the Cross

The First Station: Jesus is condemned to death.

Jesus scourged

Pontius Pilate wasn’t a bad guy. He tried to let Jesus off, he really did. He tried to pacify the crowd by just beating an innocent man bloody. But they were so insistent. And sure, he had all the soldiers and all the power, but what if they had gotten mad at him? He couldn’t have that. No, Pilate wasn’t a bad guy, just a weak one. So weak that he permitted the greatest atrocity in the history of the world, crying, “It’s not my fault!” while he crucified the Lord of glory. You’re probably not a bad guy either. But is your refusal to stand up and be counted crucifying the Lord anew? Do you keep your mouth shut as your coworkers spew profanity or sit fiddling on your phone as your spouse slaves over dinner, dishes, bathtime, and bed? Do you make any effort at all, or are you sliding complacently to perdition having washed your hands of the need to stand up and be counted? Maybe it’s not your fight–but it wasn’t Jesus’, either, and he submitted. Shouldn’t you?

The Second Station: Jesus takes up his Cross.

Christ_Carrying_the_Cross TitianWhen Jesus took up his Cross, it wasn’t tentatively, fearfully, or with disgust. Any halfheartedness in bearing his Cross would have made our salvation impossible as it slipped out of his grudging fingers. No, Jesus embraced his cross, clinging to the torture and the shame and the loneliness “for the sake of the joy that lay before him.”1 There is no glory in accepting the suffering thrust upon us with anger and complaints. But if we embrace our crosses, rejoicing in the trials of life because we worship a God who bore them first and continues to bear them alongside us, we will be transformed.

The Third Station: Jesus falls the first time.

Jesus falls the first time Saulgau_Antoniuskirche_Kreuzweg_FugelThe very first thing Jesus did after taking up his Cross was to fall. He became like us in all things, even in failure and weakness. He understands what it’s like to be inadequate, to disappoint. Being a Christian doesn’t mean being perfect–it means offering our flaws to the Lord, then getting up and starting over. It’s running to the confessional, falling on our knees, and rising stronger. When you strive for virtue and fail, remember: your God was a failure, but he kept going and his failure became the world’s redemption.

The Fourth Station: Jesus meets his mother.

Taken down from the CrossIt seems his one moment of respite, this encounter with someone who loves him not for what he has to give her but simply for who he is. As her heart breaks, she reaches out to hold him, pushing past her own pain to comfort him in his. As we become more like Christ, we also become more like Mary, loving those who toil and suffer enough to give them the strength to go on. But it’s so easy to be repelled by their needs, afraid of the sacrifice we’ll have to make to love them. Who needs you right now to look past their disfigured face, to move past your discomfort and love them? Are you willing, like Christ, like Mary, to move beyond yourself and live for others?

The Fifth Station: Simon helps Jesus carry his Cross.

Simon helps Jesus carry his CrossIn turning to Simon for help, Jesus sanctifies our weakness. Simon of Cyrene is a Saint only because Jesus was strong enough to be weak. James and John are Saints because Peter and Andrew recognized their inadequacy and asked them for help.2 Self-sufficiency is not a Christian virtue, particularly not in the area of combating sin. In what areas of your life do you need to humble yourself and ask for help? It won’t just give you support in carrying your cross–it may just make saints of the both of you.

The Sixth Station: Veronica wipes the face of Jesus.

james-tissot-a-holy-woman-wipes-the-face-of-jesus

She takes a great risk here, running through the crowd, pushing past the soldiers, and falling at his feet. She tenderly pushes the hair out of his eyes, mops the blood from his battered face, and comes away with his image imprinted on the cloth. For her selflessness, she is rewarded, not with wealth or fame but with the joy of having consoled the heart of Christ. To be a Christian is to be radical, to make people uncomfortable, to suffer for Christ. But when we choose to live with reckless abandon for the Lord, we find ourselves blessed beyond imagining with a peace that surpasses understanding.3 It’s just a matter of trusting that he will do what he said and living as we already know we should. When we do that, we will find ourselves–against all odds–bearing the true image of Christ to the world.

The Seventh Station: Jesus falls the second time.

Jesus falls
By this time, I wonder if the soldiers aren’t annoyed. They have a job to do and this pathetic man’s weakness keeps complicating it. They roll their eyes, they jeer. They view the God of their salvation as an obstacle. If only we didn’t do the same. If only I saw the defiant middle-schooler as the purpose of Christ’s death on the Cross and not as a problem to be dealt with. If only I stopped resenting or tolerating people and started loving them. If only their weakness sparked compassion in me instead of exasperation. We expect the Lord to be strong in our weakness; what if we let him be strong in theirs through us?

The Eighth Station: Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem.

women of Jerusalem Fr_PfettisheimCrucifixion is the most painful and shameful way the Romans could devise to slaughter someone. It was so painful, they had to coin a new word to express the agony: excruciating. And yet, beaten within an inch of his life, dragging the instrument of his torture and death, Jesus saw nothing but others’ pain. “Do not weep for me,” he says, “But for yourselves and for your children.” It’s so easy to get caught up in our own suffering and ignore the pain of those around us, especially when their pain seems trivial. Remember, though, that the greatest pain a person has suffered is the greatest pain in the world. Live not just kindness but compassion, allowing your heart to ache for those who suffer–and then doing something to relieve that suffering, by physical aid, listening with love, or offering prayers and sacrifices. We become like Christ when we love like he did, even when we are broken ourselves.

The Ninth Station: Jesus falls the third time.

Jesus falls third timeWhen Jesus fell the last time, there seemed no hope that he would rise again. He was spent, beaten and bloody, incapable of that last effort that would bring him to the top of Calvary. He could have just laid down and died right there, but he needed to be lifted up on the Cross for all the world to see. And so, in the face of hopelessness, he called on superhuman strength to persist. He kept going. And when he did that, he gave you the same power to let the Lord be strong in your weakness. There comes a point when we finally realize how completely inadequate we are to the task of holiness. We fall on our face, unable to resist the temptations or persevere in prayer. Then, at last, in our weakness he is strong.4 When we have nothing left to give, when we realize that we never had anything to give, then we allow him to be all in all. When we realize that we can never be good enough for him, we find that we already are good enough in him. Do not despair, my friends. It may be Friday, but Sunday is coming.

The Tenth Station: Jesus is stripped of his garments.

Jesus_is_stripped_of_his_garmentsJesus held nothing back. He suffered pain and loneliness, separation from the Father, and finally the shame and indignity of being stripped to hang naked as the crowds mocked. There was nothing he wouldn’t give for you. What’s your line? Do you offer him your Sunday mornings but not your Saturday nights? Are you willing to be martyred for him but not to be mocked? Do you hand over control of your relationships but not your internet habits? Allow him to strip you of the walls that you’ve put between your heart and his–your sin, your pride, your job, your standing in the community. The more you follow him, the more you will find yourself naked and unashamed in his piercing gaze. But you have to unclench the fists you’ve tightened around the garments you’ve clothed yourself with before you’ll ever find peace in him.

The Eleventh Station: Jesus is nailed to the Cross.

crucified Christ bloody
It was not nails that held him to the Cross. One would expect creation itself to rebel, the Cross to splinter and the nails to warp, when their Creator was crucified. But “Peace,” he told them, “be still.” Because even had the nails crumbled to dust, his love would have held him there. In his mercy, he became a slave to love and was never more free. You are not bound to stay in your marriage. Divorces are cheap and getting easier by the day. It’s not the law that keeps you there but your love. You are not bound to stay in your Church. God knows you wouldn’t be the first to leave. It’s not your obligation that keeps you there but your love. And so with your children and your job and whatever else may not seem worth it today. You stay because you are more free as a slave to love than you would be unshackled by all the relationships that hold you bound. And each moment that you choose love, each moment that you are crucified by your beloved, you will find that the nails bite less deeply as the pain becomes peace.

The Twelfth Station: Jesus dies on the Cross.

prudhon_pierre-paul-crucifixion

There is nothing in the life of Christ that is not also expected of his followers. So when he dies on the Cross, handing his life over for love of those who despise him, keep this in mind: you must do the same. This is the universal call to martyrdom, the requirement that all followers of Christ die daily to themselves in order that others may live. In order that Christy may live in them. We must die to our love of wealth that the poor may live. We must die to our love of rest that our families may live. We must die to our love of self that our neighbors may live. We must die to our love of mediocrity that Christ may live. Turning from laziness or pornography or Candy Crush or envy or rage or materialism or gossip or Twitter or complacency may feel like a crucifixion. That’s what you signed up for.

The Thirteenth Station: Jesus is taken down from the Cross.

Jesus taken down

Jesus’ corpse is pulled down from the Cross and lain in the arms of his mother. There is only one pain greater than the pain of a parent who has lost a child: the pain of a parent who has given a child. The Father knows that pain. Even though you mocked and betrayed him, even though you ignored and rejected him, even though you continue to deny him and will until you die, he thought you were worth it. And so he stepped back and watched his Son suffer for 33 years. And when it became almost unbearable for his sinless Son, he stepped back so far that God himself felt abandoned by the Father. He watched his Son die in agony and then looked at his broken, lifeless body and rejoiced. Because it was that misery that won him you. And you are worth it. Live like you’re worth it.

The Fourteenth Station: Jesus is laid in the tomb.

Jesus entombed
It is finished. Love has come and been slaughtered for his pains. Nothing, it seems, will be beautiful again. But Sunday is coming. In this moment of defeat, of silent agony and hope destroyed, lies the true joy of the Christian life: our God is bigger. He is bigger than death, bigger than divorce, bigger than sin and shame and shallow distractions. There is no wound he cannot heal, no death he cannot reverse. He may not triumph in the way you would have chosen, but know this: he will triumph. Know this, as you lie in your tomb, as you weep at her tomb, as you run from his tomb: for the Christian, defeat is merely the seed of victory. He will triumph.

  1. Heb 12:2 []
  2. Lk 5:7 []
  3. Phil 4:7 []
  4. 2 Cor 12:9-10 []

Top Ten Ways to Fail at Lent

Lent’s a beautiful opportunity for grace and growth, but (like anything good) Satan can twist it. It’s easy for our penances to become about us, for us to be discouraged when we fail or arrogant when we succeed. 24 hours in, it’s probably about time for us to start checking our motivations and letting the Lord refine us. So let’s get judgey for a minute–judgey about imaginary people with imaginary problems so we can be convicted about our real problems.

1. “Super psyched about fasting this Lent. #skinny #40daycleanse”

The point of your Lenten observances isn’t to get hot or impress people. It’s to live for the Lord. Most of us will have some selfishness mixed in, but if it’s all about you, drop it and find something that’s more about him.

2. “I’m giving up TV for Lent, but it’s cool. I’ve got Netflix.”

Don’t sub out one empty pleasure with another. Read a good book. Call a friend. Go outside.1 Basically, if it feels like cheating, it probably is.

I love this guy.
I love this guy.

3. “Oh, chocolate? Gosh, I love chocolate. Too bad I gave it up for Lent. You’re so lucky that you didn’t give up chocolate. I guess I’m just really trying to be holy, you know? But not everybody can be holy like me.”

There might be some Lenten observances that you can’t keep quiet.2 And some might be encouraging to others.3 Or maybe you need some encouragement.4 But if you’re just bragging, shut up.

4. “Ew ew ew ew creamy peanut butter ew ew ew ew ew!! Ugh, this is so hard! My life is so hard!!!”

Sometimes it’s veiled bragging, but whether you’re showing off or not, complaining about your penance kind of defeats the purpose. Try asking yourself: is my fast worse than being crucified? If it isn’t, don’t complain about it. If it is, oh my gosh stop it right now!

sorry hungry5. “Shut up! SHUT UP!! Why are you talking to me??? Sorry…I gave up coffee for Lent.”

If it’s more of a penance for those around you than it is for you, stop. Also, deal with your addiction–just maybe not cold turkey.

6. “I love this no meat Friday thing! Seriously, lobster’s, like, my favorite.”

Please don’t use abstinence as an excuse to indulge in something expensive. Or even something delicious. If you really, really love seafood, you should probably avoid it on Fridays in Lent. Penance should be a sacrifice, not just a hoop to jump through.

7. “Yeah, I gave up Skittles but then I forgot and ate them so now I’m back on my diet of skittles as a side dish with every meal.”

Lent is like life. If you fall, you repent and get back up. Don’t quit just because you failed–recognize your weakness and rejoice that your salvation doesn’t depend on your penances. Then start again.

#ashtag #fasting #doesorangejuicecountasameal #sohungryrightnow #IcouldntfigureouthowtomakeducklipssoIwentwiththis
#ashtag #fasting #doesorangejuicewithpulpcountasameal #sohungryrightnow #IcouldntfigureouthowtomakeducklipssoIwentwiththis

8. “Aw, man! There were coffee grounds at the bottom of my cup and I swallowed them. Does that count as one of my three meals?”

On the flip side, some of us get so obsessed with the rules (even the ones we’ve set for ourselves) that we quit being broken sinners in the arms of a merciful God and start being Pharisees. Have mercy on yourselves and let him be the strong one.

9. “I gave up beer for Lent, which is awesome because I’m saving crazy money. I’m going to use it for a new tattoo once Easter comes.”

The purpose of your fasting is to make room in your life for the Lord. I’ve got nothing against tattoos, but maybe if your fasting is saving you money, you could send that money on and turning your fasting into almsgiving. It’ll help keep that selfishness from creeping in.

10. “I’m giving up homework for Lent.”

I’m sorry, every smart aleck kid ever, you can’t give up an obligation.

Speaking as one who’s probably committed every one of these, let me give you some consolation: it’s okay to fail at Lent. It’s hard to fast, hard to turn your heart back to the Lord, hard to live in the shadow of the cross. But as with so much in life, it’s not about you. It’s about Christ at work in you. Start over each day and let him teach you more and more to live for him. That’s what Lent’s about: not fasting, almsgiving, or even prayer, but a love of God that transforms you. Verso l’alto, my friends. Let’s be saints.

  1. Unless you, like me, are stuck in the frozen wasteland that is Michigan. []
  2. When I gave up sarcasm, for example, people kept wondering what was wrong with me until I explained my frequent tense silences. []
  3. “I’m doing daily Mass during Lent. Want to join me?” []
  4. “I can’t do it! I can’t live without Twitter!! Help me!!!” []

Lenten Boot Camp

Update: Print off all the readings here (courtesy of Sara Larson): Lenten Boot Camp readings

Of course, that might just be the fasting....
Of course, that might just be the fasting….

Y’all know I’m a big fan of Lent. Fasting and almsgiving and prayer get my theologeek heart all twitterpated. And while I’ve got a million (well, a hundred) ideas of various things you can do for Lent, I think some of y’all may still feel adrift as far as jumpstarting your prayer life goes. So I figured the Advent Boot Camp was so popular1 that I might as well put one together for you for Lent!

It’s the same idea as last time: a daily regimen of prayer that grows in length and intensity as you get into spiritual shape. You’ll start your prayer time each day (ideally in a chapel) with a 5-minute warm-up, offering the Lord your distractions and discussing with him anything that might be weighing on you. When you’ve slowed down and entered into a spirit of prayer, feel free to begin. As Lent begins, you’re looking at 20-25 minutes of prayer time. By the last few weeks, it should be more like an hour, with longer stretches of silence.

Feel free to be flexible with your “silent time.” If a passage moves you and you end up doing Lectio Divina or an Ignatian Meditation for half an hour, don’t feel compelled then to sit for another 25 minutes. As with the Advent version, this is a guideline, not a foolproof plan. Feel free to substitute anything. What’s essential is that you’re spending time in silent prayer–not just prayer but silent prayer–and that you’re easing into it.

It’s pretty heavy on the reading and on the silence. If that’s not how you pray, try another way. But do try to be intentional about sitting with Jesus when you have “nothing to say.” That’s usually when he speaks the loudest.

Lent boot camp

Ash Wednesday Joel 2:12-17; Reading from St. Peter Chrysologus; 15 minutes silence

Thursday

Genesis 3; decade of the rosary; 10 minutes silence

Friday

Stations of the Cross (St. Alphonsus Liguori version); a few minutes silence after each station

Saturday

Matthew 4:1-11; decade of the rosary; 10 minutes silence
First Sunday Sonnet XIV (John Dunne); 20 minutes of prayer (your choice)

Monday

Isaiah 53; memorize Isaiah 53:5; 15 minutes silence

Tuesday

Rosary; 10 minutes silence

Wednesday

Lectio Divina on Hebrews 12:1-4, then silence: 30 minutes altogether

Thursday

CCC (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph numbers) 598-605; 2 decades of the rosary; 10 minutes silence

Friday

Mark 15:16-39; 15 minutes silence

Saturday

Matthew 17:1-9; Reading from St. Leo the Great; 10 minutes silence
Second Sunday O Deus Ego Amo Te (Gerard Manley Hopkins); 25 minutes of prayer (your choice)

Monday

Exodus 12; Easter homily by Melito of Sardis; 15 minutes silence

Tuesday

Reading from St. John Chrysostom; John 14; decade of the rosary; 10 minutes silence

Wednesday

John 15; CCC 606-611; 20 minutes silence

Thursday

John 16-17; 15 minutes silence

Friday

Stations of the Cross (Mother Angelica’s); silence after each station

Saturday

John 4:5-42; journal on the reading; decade of the rosary
Third Sunday O Sacred Head Surrounded (or listen here); 30 minutes of prayer (your choice)

Monday

Psalm 42-43; 20 minutes silence

Tuesday

CCC 456-460; Rosary; 10 minutes silence

Wednesday

Reading from St. Augustine; memorize Romans 5:8; 15 minutes silence

Thursday

Isaiah 50:4-10; Reading from St. Aelred; 20 minutes silence

Friday

Luke 23:18-49; decade of the rosary; 15 minutes silence

Saturday

John 9:1-41; write 5 things it tells you about who Jesus is; 20 minutes silence
Fourth Sunday When I Survey the Wondrous Cross (or listen here); 10 minutes silence; 30 minutes of prayer (your choice)

Monday

Jonah; 2 decades of the rosary; 20 minutes silence

Tuesday

Luke 9:23-26; Take Up Your Cross; 25 minutes silence

Wednesday

CCC 612-618; Psalm 22; 20 minutes silence

Thursday

Isaiah 58; 2 decades of the rosary; 25 minutes silence

Friday

Stations of the Cross (inspired by Caryll Houselander); silence after each;  Wisdom 2:12-24

Saturday

John 11:1-45; Ignatian meditation on the passage (feel free to use a guided one: Lazarus); 10 minutes silence
Fifth Sunday Ah, Holy Jesus (or listen here); 20 minutes silence; 30 minutes of prayer (your choice)

Monday

Ezekiel 16; Luke 15; 20 minutes silence

Tuesday

Scriptural Rosary; 15 minutes silence

Wednesday

Isaiah 53; make a good examination of conscience; 20 minutes silence

Thursday

Reading from Maximus the Confessor; 30 minutes silence

Friday

Matthew 26:14-75; 30 minutes silence

Saturday

Matthew 27:1-66; Office of Readings; 30 minutes silence
Palm Sunday The Hint of an Explanation; 30 minutes of prayer (your choice)

Monday

Genesis 1:1-2:2; Genesis 22:1-18; 30 minutes silence

Tuesday

Exodus 14:15-15:1; Isaiah 54:5-14; 2 decades of the rosary; 30 minutes silence

Wednesday

Isaiah 55:1-11; Baruch 3:9-15, 32-4:4; 30 minutes silence

Thursday

Ezekiel 36:16-28; Romans 6:3-11; 2 decades of the rosary; 30 minutes silence

Friday

Isaiah 53; John 19 (if not attending the Good Friday Liturgy); Psalm 22; 45 minutes silence

Saturday

Office of Readings; the Exultet; 45 minutes silence

One page PDF (with hyperlinks) here: Lent couch to 5k. All the readings (compiled by the fabulous Sara Larson) available as a PDF here: Lenten Boot Camp readings

Be holy, friends–and do let me know how this works out for you!

  1. By which I mean at least four people did it. []

“Cheating” on Sundays

This isn’t entirely relevant, but check out the awesome Lenten manicure I got! I know it should be purple, but we were at a pink party, so deal. Seriously, though, how amazing are the crucifixes on our thumbs? And I have crosses on every finger. Basically, Madi who did my manicure is my favorite ever.

I’m sure this is old news to you, but you can eat whatever you want on Sunday. Sundays are considered days of rejoicing in the Catholic Church, each one a “little Easter.” On the first day of the week we celebrate the resurrection, most importantly by going to Mass but also by feasting. Because of this, Catholics are traditionally considered to be relieved of their Lenten penances on Sundays.1 Solemnities, too, are days of feasting, so enjoy your chocolate-covered bacon on the Solemnity of St. Joseph and the Annunciation, even if they do fall on Friday.

But the idea behind feasting on Sunday is not that we celebrate the resurrection with gluttony, that we indulge in some of the sinful behavior we gave up for Lent, or that we don’t pray as we’ve promised to. If you quit cursing for Lent, please don’t wake up Sunday with a resounding “@#*%@$^#$!!” Likewise, if you’re praying a rosary daily, Sunday is not the day to take off. But if you gave up sweets, there’s nothing wrong with celebrating the Lord’s resurrection with a slice of cake and a few pieces of chocolate.

Before you call me lame or a cheater or a heretic,2 take a minute to recall how long Lent is. That’s right, 40 days. But how many days are there between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday? Well, shoot, there are 46! Take out Sundays and you’re back to 40. See?

Sunday in LentNow, you’re not obligated to feast on Sundays; maybe Lent is more meaningful to you if you’re in the desert the whole time rather than taking dessert breaks. But a little Sunday feasting can be a good idea if you can be reasonable about it. I think the occasional indulgence makes fasting that much more of a sacrifice. If you’re on a juice fast, for example, you eventually stop getting hungry. Resetting your fast every week makes it more sacrificial. And feasting on Sunday reminds you all day long that this day is set apart. I never really lived the liturgical year until I started feasting on Sundays, Solemnities, and Feasts.3 Now, I always know whose feast it is and what’s coming up and I really long for these liturgical celebrations, It’s not just about a little bit of chocolate–feasting makes these days feel like the Feasts that they are.

But Sunday being a little Easter cuts both ways. Our Sundays ought to look different from the rest of the week all year long–obligatory Mass attendance being the most obvious distinction–but particularly in Lent. So as the first Sunday in Lent approaches, consider how you can celebrate Sundays.

If you’re a student–or a teacher, or anyone else who’s got a tone of work to do at home–I highly recommend taking Sunday as an actual Sabbath. That’s right, no work. I first did this in college and never quit afterwards because it was such a blessing. Think about it: you wake up Sunday morning and literally the only thing you have to do is go to Mass. So you go to Mass, have a leisurely brunch, and get coffee with a friend. As your roommate works frantically on his lab report, you kick back and read a book. As your boyfriend holes up in the library to finish a paper that was assigned 6 weeks ago, you make a chapel visit and then watch a chick flick. Now, you may have done those things anyway, but you would have felt guilty. The beauty of the Sabbath is that you have to rest–you couldn’t be doing anything productive even if you wanted to!

I know that most of you feel that you have entirely too much work to do to take Sundays off. Give me a break. With very few exceptions, if you refocus your whole week so that Sundays are free, there’s plenty of time. Maybe you can’t go out Friday or Saturday nights because you’re in finishing an assignment for Monday. Maybe that’s good for you. In the two and a half years that I did this, I think I may have had two Sundays where I had worked my butt off all week and still couldn’t finish. So I got the work done early Sunday and had the rest of my Sabbath to nap, pray, and visit with friends. There’s a reason God gave us a day of rest–it’s amazing! So why not at least give it a shot?

If you’ve got a family, try making Sunday family day. Shut the computer off all day and go out to a movie or a museum or the park. Bake cookies to celebrate the fact that you can eat sweets on Sunday. Pray a family rosary or have a family Bible study. Rejoice in the fact that you’re not fasting, yes, but rejoice in faith and family as well.

If you’re single, Sunday’s a great day to make a holy hour, get a documentary about a Saint on Netflix, or go to your mom’s house for dinner–and bring the meal. Or just turn off your phone and your computer, put away the work you brought home with you, and sit around doing nothing. If you’re anything like me, you don’t do enough of that.

Because the only obligatory fasts in our Church fall on a Wednesday and a Friday, it’s entirely up to you whether or not you break your fast on Sundays. Take some time to pray about it: could you avoid being gluttonous? Would your feasting truly be a celebration of the Resurrection? Would fasting all the way through make Easter more meaningful for you? But do take this Lent as an opportunity to begin a more intentional celebration of the Sabbath. The day of rest was given us as a gift–accept it and rejoice!

  1. In much the same way, every Friday is a “little Good Friday”–which is why all Catholics are obliged to make some sort of sacrifice every Friday of the year. The U.S. bishops recommend abstaining from meat. []
  2. Which may all be true, just not in respect to chocolate on Sundays. I’m really not making this up. []
  3. The real ones that are technically called Feasts, not any random memorial of a Saint. []

10 Reasons We Fast

Image via flickr

I love my kids, and I always loved teaching, hard as it was, but I am not sorry to be missing the whining today. “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe we have to have pizza today! Why can’t I just have a hamburger? This is so stupid! The cafeteria should at least serve meat so people have the option to choose. Why does the Church get to tell me what I can and can’t eat? Am I really going to go to hell if I have a little bacon? That’s not fair!” You think I am exaggerating. I am not.

I’m always amazed at how we can sit before a God who was stripped, beaten, and nailed to a cross for us and say that anything is “too much” to ask. Oh, I do it, don’t get me wrong. But when you think about the size of our sacrifice compared to the size of his, it seems rather pathetic to deny him. And yet when it comes to food (and sex), we are decidedly ready to.

Now, I love food. But the Lord drew me to fasting from almost the beginning of my walk with him. I was 15 when I started making significant sacrifices outside of Lent and 17 when I first really fasted–not the unimpressive one-regular-meal-and-two-small-meals rule that most of the world just calls eating, but the kind where you don’t eat for more than 8 hours at a time.1 At first, I was just being obedient to the promptings of the Spirit, but as the years have gone by and the Lord has led me to fast in many and various ways, I’ve begun to see just how much fasting can teach us.

In this world of food television, fast food, and gatherings that always and everywhere center around food, it can be hard to see the point of real fasting. Sure, I can give up chocolate so that I know I’m a good Christian, but what does it actually accomplish? If you’re just doing it because that’s what good Christians do, I would imagine it accomplishes very little. But if you’re submitting in obedience, uniting your sacrifice to Christ’s, or seeking the meaning of the practice, there is so much the Lord has to offer you through the gift of fasting.

  1. When you fast, you tell the Lord that you love him more than food.
    I think this is the most basic level, the first thing we understand about fasting as a child. Every piece of candy we don’t eat, every meal we skip is a love letter to the Lord. Early on, it’s very hard, but gradually we begin to put Christ first so that a snack or even (God help us) a piece of bacon seems nothing compared to Christ.
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  2. Fasting helps to detach you from your psychological dependence on food. I think Americans especially are obsessed with food; we let it rule us. The idea of having enough self-control to skip a snack, let alone a meal, is astounding to us. But when you choose hunger for love of God, you begin to realize that hunger isn’t so bad. After years of fasting, I don’t have to plan my life around food.2 Food is a gift or a detail, never the driving force in my life. There’s great freedom in that.
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  3. Fasting makes eating worshipful. If you’ve ever been really hungry–I mean really hungry–you know that the first bite of stale bagel is rapturous. That whole first meal, really, is the best thing you’ve ever tasted. Far from running from food because the world is evil, fasting teaches us to find God in the good things of creation. And if you fast frequently, you get in the habit of worshiping when you eat.3 Every good food becomes a prayer and soon you see the whole world as sacramental–which, after all, is the point.
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  4. Fasting gives you mastery over your body. More than just helping you to rule your appetite, fasting teaches you to rule your appetites. When you fast, you discipline your body and learn to be its master, not its slave. I don’t know how people can be chaste when they haven’t practiced self-mastery in the arena of food first. If you can learn to deny yourself in what is an actual need, your ability to deny yourself a great desire is strengthened dramatically.
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  5. Fasting unites you to the suffering Christ. I’m not just being flippant when I say “Jesus suffocated to death for you; I think you can handle skipping snack time.” During Lent, we walk with our suffering God through the desert, up the hill, and onto the Cross. When our Lenten journey is more than inconvenient, when it’s actually painful, to a degree, we can offer our hearts to him and learn to love him better. We suffer for love of him, which consoles his bleeding heart and teaches us just how deeply he loves us.
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  6. Fasting teaches you to accept every cross, not just the ones you choose. I once found myself furious because I had been looking forward to lemonade and my table was given tea instead. It took me a minute to realize that I would gladly have chosen to go the whole day without food but I just could not accept not getting a drink that I didn’t even particularly like. For many of us, the great difficulty of our particular cross is that it is chosen for us. The more we learn to take up the crosses of our choosing, the more we learn to embrace the one that is thrust upon us. True fasting makes me decrease and him increase. I learn to rely on his strength at work in me; if he can carry this little cross I made for myself, he can certainly carry the big one he picked out for me.
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  7. Fasting changes your attitude to discomfort. Before I started fasting, hunger was misery, an occasion for whining and self-pity. After years of training, my automatic reaction to hunger is to pray. There are even times when I find myself praising God for the hunger before remembering that I’m not fasting, I just haven’t gotten around to eating. When hunger is prayer, it’s not hard to make pain and exhaustion and other physical discomfort prayer. We adjust our attitudes by surrendering our bodies to God and before long we find that virtue isn’t as hard as it once seemed.
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  8. Fasting teaches you to live in solidarity with the poor. I hear people say “I’m starving” all the time. “No,” I want to shout, “You aren’t!” You know who’s starving? Orphans in Africa and lepers in Calcutta and even, God help us, some people on our streets here at home. But you? You’re barely even hungry. I know the difference, because I’ve tasted that “starving” you throw around. Not starving to death, no, and not by necessity but by choice. It’s not the same and I don’t want to pretend that the hunger I took on is as crippling as the tragedy of poverty and hunger in this world. Still, I’ve felt a hunger so deep that you stop being hungry. When you’ve experienced that type of hunger, it’s hard to be swayed by missing a meal. And it’s easy to ache with love for those who don’t choose starvation. Now I’m not recommending that you starve yourself by any means, but if you’ve been really hungry–even gone 24 hours without food–the word “starving” will come less easily to your lips and aid for the poor will come more readily out of your pocketbook.
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  9. Fasting humbles you. When you’re awkwardly turning down food without telling people why,4 you’re humbled. When you realize how addicted you are to Pop Rocks, you’re humbled. When you’re so hungry you get light-headed and you have to break your fast to honor your body, when your hunger makes you cranky, when you realize just how little control you have over your body or your mind, when you realize how much you take for granted, you’re humbled and humbled and humbled again.
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  10. Courtesy of Kelly.

    Fasting strengthens your prayer.  The testimony of Scripture is clear on this issue: “this kind comes out only by prayer and fasting.” Fasting purifies our intentions and puts force behind our prayers. When you’re fasting for an intention, you’re telling God how much you mean it. This Lent, will you consider adding one sacrifice (food or otherwise) to your list of resolutions specifically for the Holy Father and the conclave that will elect his successor? It doesn’t have to be anything much, but every time you’re tempted, throw up a prayer for our German Shepherd and the man who will step into his large, holy shoes.

Now, there are many people who can’t fast in an extreme way, for whatever reason. If you can’t skip a meal, there are favorite foods you can cut out. If you’ve struggled with an eating disorder, though, your penance will be to eat. For you, dear one, that is penance enough.

Go to Focus for the whole infographic

For the rest of you, I’d like to challenge you to pray about stepping up your game this Lent. If you’re psychologically dependent on snacks, give them up. If you “need” 3 square meals a day, try cutting back to two on Fridays. Go vegan for Lent or just cut out meat. If you’re being led to something more extreme, I’ll assume you’re working with a spiritual director and don’t need my ideas. I’m only beginning to learn the lessons that I’ve listed above–I’m certainly no expert on fasting or holiness or prayer or really anything at all. But I feel so blessed to have been led to fast and thought I ought to propose to you all that there is more to fasting than just skipping your snack and calling it a day. It’s not too late to up the ante this Lent.

If nothing else, though, you’re looking at one regular meal and two small meals today and Good Friday and abstinence today and every Friday in Lent.  The Church in her wisdom has required these minor sacrifices of us; let’s offer them joyfully to the Lord and see what he has to teach us.

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This song by Jimmy Needham (love him!) is a beautiful meditation on today’s first reading. Enjoy–and happy Lent, friends! May the Father strengthen you to persevere in your penances; may the Son rejoice in your heart as it suffers with and for him; may the Spirit bring you wisdom and clarity through the sacrifices you make for love of him.

 

  1. I’m not going to go into details. I usually don’t talk about fasting in a way that will give people any idea about how I fast, but I think I should today. Just know that I’m healthy and prayed up and that you should discuss anything ridiculous with a spiritual director. []
  2. If you’re diabetic or hypoglycemic or have struggled with eating disorders, this is not something to aspire to. Be where you are–God loves you just there. []
  3. Not what you eat, although breaking your fast with the Eucharist can be just incredible. []
  4. Do try not to tell people why. If you’re telling everybody how hard your fasting is, you might as well just start eating again. That’s the point of today’s Gospel: fasting is between you and God, not you and God and your friends and your frenemies and Facebook…. []

100 Things to Do for Lent

Do you realize how soon Ash Wednesday is? Shoot, y’all, it’s time to start praying on what you’re going to do for Lent.

I’ve always loved Lent. It’s like Jesus Boot Camp–6 weeks of hardcore prayer and fasting, but then you get 7 weeks of Easter, praise the Lord, to gain back all the weight you lost in Lent.1 I’ll write more about the gift of fasting later, I’m sure, but for now, let’s get really practical.

What the heck are you going to do for Lent?

You probably know that the three pillars of Lent are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.2 Did you know that you’re supposed to do all three? Did you know that you can do more than one thing in each category? Did you know that giving up regular Coke and only drinking Coke Zero, Diet Coke, and Caffeine-free Coke is a totally lame-o way to go?3

Lent is not the time to go so hard that you die–or make others wish they were dead because you’re so cranky. It’s a time to discern what the Lord is calling you to, what he wants you to be more detached from, what sin he’s calling you to abandon, how he wants you to lean on him and love his children. But it can be hard sometimes to come up with something more fruitful than giving up soda, so I thought I’d give you some options.

Fasting is the most obvious. Even non-Catholics will ask you what you gave up for Lent. For some of us, Lent is an opportunity to root out some of the evil in our lives. Maybe it’s time to give one (or a few) of these sins up.

  1. Drunkenness
  2. Gossip
  3. Pornography
  4. Complaining–try accepting the cross you’re given instead of objecting that you’d rather choose your own.
  5. Smoking4
  6. Masturbation5
  7. Calling your sister an alien6
  8. Negativity
  9. Being snarky or short or cold or whatever it is you do that makes talking to you an act of charity
  10. Laziness–try exercising for Lent
  11. Arguing
  12. Being picky–eat whatever is set before you
  13. Judging people
  14. Comparing yourself with others
  15. Anger
  16. Immodest clothing
  17. Impure books/television/movies/music
  18. Lying
  19. Cursing
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    Or maybe there’s something good in your life that you’re too dependent on. Or even something good that is healthy for you but that you could offer to the Lord for 40 days. Fasting can help you grow spiritually in so many ways. How about:
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  20. Snacking
  21. Television
  22. Lunch
  23. Facebook
  24. Makeup
  25. Soda
  26. Chocolate
  27. Shopping (the frivolous kind, anyway)
  28. Secular music
  29. Sweets7
  30. Hitting the snooze button
  31. Secular reading
  32. Meat
  33. Naps
  34. Junk food
  35. Fast food
  36. A reasonable diet8
  37. Coffee
  38. Cream and sugar in your coffee9
  39. Social media
  40. Sarcasm10
  41. Scratching
  42. Your pillow
  43. Hot showers
  44. Hot food
  45. Salting your food
  46. Staying up stupid late–give yourself a bedtime!
  47. Wasting your life on the internet
  48. In that vein: youtube
  49. Wearing your favorite color
  50. Alcohol
  51. Kissing11
  52. Gum
  53. Checking your smartphone when you’re with people12
  54. Driving when you could walk
  55. Idle curiosity–try not reading every sign you pass or googling every question you have. If it doesn’t matter, be content not to know.
  56. Anything that’s about popularity–checking your blog stats, posting things on facebook that are clever but not edifying
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    Prayer should be at the center of your life all the time, but especially during Lent. Try one of these 50 ways to talk to God on for size, follow this daily Lenten prayer schedule to ease you in to a holy hour, or go for one of the below–altering amount and frequency if you like.
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  57. Daily Mass–maybe even daily!
  58. A chapter of the Bible a day. You can get through all 4 Gospels if you read 2 chapters a day and don’t skip Sundays.
  59. 10 minutes of meditation a day
  60. Chaplet of Divine Mercy
  61. Join a Bible study at your parish
  62. 20 minutes of Spiritual reading a day
  63. The Rosary–a decade or even a whole Rosary each day
  64. Go to your Church’s Lenten mission
  65. Stop by an adoration chapel on your way home each day
  66. Don’t turn on music while you drive–pray instead
  67. Subscribe to some solid Catholic blogs
  68. The Liturgy of the Hours–once a day or seven times, if you like. My favorite is the Office of Readings (Matins).
  69. Wear a crucifix
  70. Spend the time you would have spent watching TV reading the lives of the Saints or watching documentaries on the Saints
  71. Go to confession–every week, every other week, for the first time in 30 years….
  72. Pray the Stations of the Cross every Friday
  73. Get up early to pray13
  74. List 5 things you’re grateful for every day
  75. Journal
  76. Blog!
  77. Be intentional about your time–make a schedule (with prayer featuring prominently) and stick to it
  78. Go to an art museum or a botanical gardens once a week and just rejoice in beauty
  79. Break your fast with the Eucharist every day–don’t eat until you’ve been to Mass
  80. Pick a virtue to strive for each day
  81. Spend 10 minutes each night talking to the Lord about your day–thanking him for the good and the bad, apologizing for how you fell short, asking for the grace to be better the next day
  82. Listen to Christian music while you drive
  83. Listen to Catholic CDs while you drive
  84. Pick a Saint to be like and do it
  85. Lectio Divina
  86. Pay attention at Mass
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    Almsgiving isn’t always as easy as giving money to the poor. Figure out how you need to love the people around you and do it.
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  87. Donate the money you would have spent on whatever you’re fasting from
  88. Spend the time you would have spent watching TV with your family
  89. Visit a nursing home–and bring your little ones if you have them. Nothing takes the awkward out of talking to old people you don’t know like a baby.
  90. Step up your tithing game from 10% to 15%
  91. Invite a priest or religious to dinner
  92. Do that rice bowl thing
  93. Save up all your change (and maybe even your singles) and give them to charity.14
  94. Write letters to your grandparents
  95. Call your mother
  96. Volunteer once a week–soup kitchen, shoveling snow, the nursery at church, whatever!
  97. Give someone a compliment every day
  98. Take someone to lunch every week–a lonely coworker, a neighbor you don’t always love, one of your children
  99. Perform an act of charity every day–do the dishes when it’s not your turn, take your kids to that awful playground they love so much, talk to your parents in multiple-word sentences, pick up litter
  100. Tell someone about Jesus

Here’s a printable list that’ll  help your family (or community) decide together what to do for Lent.

Shoot, friends, that’s a lot of stuff–what else would you recommend?

More ideas from LifeTeen here and here. Nick did me one better with his 101 Lenten practices–but he wrote it three years ago, so I can’t be bitter. Any other sites with good suggestions?

Well, shoot, I added this post to Haley’s Little Holy Days linkup–my very first linkup ever–and totally forgot to add a link back to hers and all the other great Lent posts! And now we’re almost a week into Lent and probably done with any serious traffic on this post,15 but you should click over and see what other people have to say about Lent. Enjoy!

  1. This is how I know my fasting is not just dieting–because while I may lose weight during Lent, I gain it all back (and then some) during the Octave of Easter. []
  2. Giving to the poor []
  3. I’m looking at you, Nathan. []
  4. Not necessarily a sin, but it’s fair to call it a vice, anyway, right? []
  5. Yeah, I went there. []
  6. Or, more broadly, making fun of people. I didn’t do Lent growing up, but I did make this New Year’s resolution once. You’re welcome, Rosie. []
  7. Stephen Colbert hadn’t tried his own ice cream flavor because he gave up sweets for Lent. Love him. []
  8. Options include: going vegan, a juice fast, bread and water, or (my favorite) gray and tasteless. I actually went an entire Lent eating only plain, flavorless foods like oatmeal and dry toast. Consult your spiritual director–and maybe your doctor–before doing anything that ridiculous. []
  9. The only time I’ve ever had black coffee was during the Triduum. How do people drink that stuff?? John Paul (my nephew, not the pope) says it tastes like sidewalk and orange peels. I think it tastes like regurgitated tar. []
  10. Yes, I’m counting this as a good thing. Did you read my post on 1 Corinthians? That thing was awesome. []
  11. Probably a bad call if you’re married. []
  12. Maybe this should go in our first category…. []
  13. I do not recommend combining this with giving up your snooze button. If you’re anything like me, one of them will have to give. []
  14. If you do this, switching to your credit card for every purchase is cheating. FYI. []
  15. Except for the slackers out there–hi! []