Guess what? Ash Wednesday is one week from today.
Okay, you can stop screaming now.
Or is it just me? :)
To be honest, I’ve mellowed a lot about Lent over the years. I used to be one of those “I have to do All the Things! Especially All the Church Things!” Catholics when it came to Lent. And then within the space of a few years I got married, moved to a really rural area and had three daughters.
So I had to learn, and fairly quickly, that it is still Lent even if you can’t get to Ash Wednesday Mass [Newsflash: Ash Wednesday is NOT a Holy Day of Obligation. Yes, I have met adult Catholics who do not know this...], Stations of the Cross, every single scheduled Mass or service during the Triduum, and so on, to say nothing of voluntary acts of fasting and penance, good spiritual reading, and a long list of daily devotions and other pious practices. I also learned that I actually like most of those things, but that a problem comes in when we make the perfect the enemy of the good, when we prioritize the wrong things during Lent, or when we spend so much time fretting that our family’s situations or seasons or schedules don’t allow us to participate in some of our favorite Lenten devotions or activities that we fail to embrace the art of doing what we actually can.
I’ve been lucky in that for the a lot of the most recent years we could, as a homeschooling family, do A Lot of the Things. But with two daughters in college now and different schedules and obligations, I’ve had to go back to that place where I was in my early married years--that place where I stop fretting and admit that it’s actually okay if we can’t make it to, say, Ash Wednesday Mass (because the early Mass is too late for workers and students, and the late one is too early for same, and even if they could get out of work and school early--not likely--I’d be taking a couple of novice fasters to an hour-plus-long Mass after they’ve gone all day on the strength of those two snacks and not serving them any actual food until around 8:30 p.m. which is just not a really good idea). Back when I was a young mom of toddlers, I used to get rather upset about having to miss Mass on Ash Wednesday even though the only Mass in our tiny rural town was a late evening one that didn’t exactly work for toddlers; if it’s a sign of some slight spiritual progress that I now tend to figure out what will work for my family and then go with it without being upset, then I have made some slight spiritual progress over the last 20 years or so.
And I’ve learned a few other things, too, so if you don’t mind reading Lenten advice from a totally unqualified laywoman, here they are:
1. Choose your Lenten practices, devotions, spiritual reading etc. in the light of your vocation as you are living it today. Are you a wife and busy mom of many littles who is pregnant or nursing? Are you a husband and father whose children are grown? Are you a single person who hopes to be married or to enter priesthood or religious life someday--even if right now all of those options are “open” and you’re unsure which will be God’s call? Are you a single person living a single vocation? Are you a priest, a religious brother or sister? All of these states in life will permit different things in terms of the time you can devote to prayer and devotions, the ability you may have to fast more than the Church requires or even as much as she requires, and so on. The best way to “fail” at Lent is to think that there is One Right Way to do it. The best way to have a good Lent is to open your heart to what the Lord is asking of you, right now, and to be willing to reevaluate that if, say, you find yourself shushing the children so you can do your spiritual reading.
2. Prioritize. I think that for most of us some of the most important aspects of Lent are: getting to Confession, following the Church’s rules regarding fasting and abstinence, focusing on the Lenten Gospels during Sunday Mass, and making a good effort to improve where we need to especially in the area of avoiding sin (especially serious sin) and faithfully living our vocations. I think that all the other things, the voluntary sacrifices, spiritual readings, prayers and devotions and church activities and so forth, while important in their own ways, should not keep us from focusing on the more important things.
3. Remember almsgiving. It’s funny, but living in a relatively affluent first-world country, I hear and read a lot at Lent about making sacrifices (like giving up candy) or saying prayers (such as a daily rosary) but not nearly as much about giving to the poor. Yet almsgiving is an important part of Lent, and always has been. It is true that many people, especially many Catholic families today, don’t have the financial resources to make large cash donations. But there are so many ways to give to the poor and to share our blessings with them! We may have to be creative, but cultivating a spirit of generosity is the goal.
4. Remember the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy. Is there a particular Work of Mercy you can do during Lent? Can you visit the sick or the elderly? Have you felt called to look into your diocese’s prison ministry? Do you make it a habit to attend funerals at your parish when you can, or can you help with the various acts of charity directed at the bereaved? Is there someone you haven’t forgiven, and is God calling you to forgive all injuries this person caused you? Do you pray daily for the living and the dead? A simple habit of prayer for the dead is to pray for them each day two Our Fathers, two Hail Marys and two Glory Be prayers, which takes very little time.
5. Keep it simple. This is especially true for families. I have come to believe that it is better to choose one small family prayer or devotion and to pray it daily than to schedule many different prayers and activities and have all of it fall apart by the third or fourth week of Lent. This is probably even more true for families where children range in age from toddlers to teens, because toddlers won’t have the patience or understanding to take part in lengthy gatherings of prayer or spiritual reading. The teens can (and should!) be encouraged to select prayers or readings of their own for Lent above and beyond the small family prayer time, but trying to do lots of elaborate things with littles usually ends in tears.
6. Be flexible. If, perhaps, you have decided to devote your morning commute time to a daily rosary, and you discover that you find it difficult to pray in the car or that you end up on business calls on the way to work or some such thing, then it’s perfectly okay to move the rosary to a different time of day, or to listen to a spiritual audiobook instead, or whatever works. I have sometimes been extremely reluctant to give up on something I was planning to do for Lent even when it was painfully obvious that whatever it was really wasn’t working at all, and I doubt I’m alone! There’s nothing wrong with attempting to persevere for a time for the sake of perseverance, but there’s plenty wrong with being too stubborn to admit that unforeseen circumstances are making something you wanted to do frustrating and unpleasant to the point where it’s doing you no spiritual good at all (and possibly making you crabby around your family, which isn’t the point of Lent. Shocker.).
7. Remember that the goal is to grow closer to the Lord and to grow in holiness. The goal is not to do what everybody else in your homeschool group is doing, or to do what all those people on the Internet are doing--it’s for you, you personally, you beloved child of God, you, to grow closer to Him and to pursue holiness. Honesty is important, and I think the Lord is more greatly pleased when, having already pledged to repent and turn from sin, we seek Him in prayer and mortify ourselves by giving up some self-indulgence which, while not sinful at all in itself, has become inordinately important to us, than when we try to Do All the Things, Say All the Prayers, and Give Up All the Good Stuff.
Lent is coming! Get ready--and be at peace.