Lent is upon us…only a few more days…as this upcoming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday. With that in mind I thought I would post a few thoughts about Lenten resolutions, just in case anyone might find these thoughts beneficial, especially if Lent is taking you by surprise, or if you haven’t yet made any Lenten resolutions.
First, the three traditional Lenten practices are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. In general, it is encouraged to work on all three areas during Lent. It’s a good thing to up our spiritual practices during Lent, doing a little more than we typically do throughout the year. In this post, however, I want to focus on a different way of making good Lenten resolutions. I don’t mean to detract from the traditional, “upping it,” as it were, during Lent. By all means, do a little more this Lent than you typically do throughout the year, and than you likely will when Lent is over and we enter the joyous Easter season. But here I want to focus on small resolutions that we can maintain throughout the year.
The reason for this is that, as Christians, we are called to pray at all times and in all seasons, not just during Lent. We are called to fast, at least to take on mortifications and penances like fasting, throughout our lives, and not just during Lent. And finally, we should be giving alms as well throughout the year, and not just during Lent. So, please, be encouraged to “up it” a bit this Lent. But now, let’s talk about a different kind of resolution.
This Lent, I want to encourage you to make concrete small resolutions involving the three traditional Lenten practices that you intend to continue beyond Lent, throughout the rest of your life. Every day is a good day for making resolutions to improve, and indeed, if we want to advance in the spiritual life, in our relationship with God, we should be making resolutions frequently on concrete realistic ways we can grow in our relationship with God and with neighbor. Lent, however, presents a particularly opportune season to make these sorts of resolutions, so that we “up it” a bit during Lent, taking our spiritual lives a little further up the incline plane of the interior life, of our journey toward sanctity. So, here’s a few examples of what I’m talking about, which you can examine in the presence of God, take to your spiritual director, and/or consider this Lent:
Examine your life of prayer. What types of practices of prayer do you do? The first thing to think about is do you do any types of prayer regularly, daily? If you do not pray regularly, perhaps this Lent you can make a resolution to adopt one type of prayer to practice everyday, with the intention of developing a habit of prayer that you can continue after Lent. Some types of daily prayer practices to consider might be:
1) Getting to confession more frequently. There’s no better time than Lent to make weekly confession a habit in your life. Most of the Popes since Pius XII, and many 20th century Saints, emphasized the importance of weekly, or monthly, confession. If you already go to confession frequently, you can always try to do it better. Perhaps you can do a more thorough examination of conscience prior to confession. Perhaps you can try to be more contrite, sorry for your sins. Perhaps you can try to be more clear and concise when you tell the priest your sins, so that you don’t try to excuse yourself and also to be considerate of the others trying to get to confession.
2) just spending sometime in silent prayer (mental prayer or contemplative prayer) with God each day. Be realistic in your goals. If you don’t spend time daily in this type of prayer, just talking to God (thanking Him, telling Him you’re sorry, telling Him you love Him, asking for light to see what He’s calling you to do, getting to know Him, etc.), then don’t set an unrealistic goal of an hour each day. Perhaps you should start with 10 minutes. If you already do 10 minutes each day, then maybe you can consider adding 5 minutes this Lent, with the intent of maintaining that throughout the year to come. If you already practice mental prayer each day, perhaps you can try to pray better, with more attention. Maybe your resolution should be to pray it when you are fresh and most awake as opposed to when you are tired. Maybe it should be to bring a long a spiritual book (the Bible, the Catechism, some text written by a Saint) to help focus your attention and provide topics to talk with God about. Perhaps you can get to a tabernacle and make your prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. These are just some suggestions.
3) Get to Mass on a weekday. If you only go to Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of obligation, maybe you can make a resolution this Lent to get to Mass an additional day during the week, with the intent of continuing this throughout the year. If you already go to Mass twice a week, perhaps you can add a third day…or a fourth…or each day, depending on how frequently you attend Mass. If you already go to Mass every day, perhaps your resolution could be to be better prepared for Mass, or better recollected during Mass. This might involve getting to Mass a few minutes early. Perhaps you can spend a few minutes after Mass in thanksgiving. If you get distracted during Mass, perhaps follow along with a missal to involve more of your senses to help cut out distractions better.
4) Daily Examination of Conscience. If you don’t already do this, you can start by taking 3 minutes before you go to bed, placing yourself in the presence of God, and asking for light to see some areas you did well that day to give thanks to God for, some areas you did not so well so you can tell God you’re sorry, and one concrete resolution for the next day so you can try to do better in an area you didn’t do so well in that day. When thinking about resolutions, it’s helpful to get at the roots of the matter. If you lost your temper, might it have had something to do with exhaustion? Perhaps go to bed at an earlier hour, etc. Then, make an act of contrition. If you already do an exam, like this. Perhaps you can do it better. Perhaps you can jot down some notes, which might help you prepare better for confession in the future. Perhaps you can jot down your resolution, so that the next day, you can look at it and remember to try to struggle in that one point. Perhaps you can pray to God to give you true sorrow, but also true joy since you are a child of God, and God loves you. Perhaps you can slow down, and do your exam with attention, prayerfully, for a few minutes, and not simply rush through it in a few seconds.
5) Take up the practice of praying the rosary. If you never pray the rosary, this could be a good Lenten resolution, perhaps to pray the rosary (one set of mysteries) each Saturday, a day traditionally devoted to Our Lady. If you do pray the rosary weekly or more frequently, perhaps you can resolve to pray it every day. One beautiful thing about the rosary is that it’s simple and convenient to pray. You can pray it before the Blessed Sacrament, or with your family, or while you drive to work, or when you’re walking about. If you already pray the rosary each day, perhaps you can resolve to pray it better, by focusing more on the mysteries, or by trying to say at least the first Hail Mary with particular attention. Or perhaps by focusing on the intentions for which you are praying. Or else maybe trying to enter into the scenes of the mysteries you are contemplating.
6) Spiritual Reading of the Bible. If you don’t regularly read Scripture, perhaps you can make a resolution to prayerfully read some portion of Scripture (maybe for a minute or 5 minutes, or a chapter, or the readings for the Mass that day) each day. If you already do this, perhaps you can resolve to get more out of your spiritual reading of the Bible. Perhaps you can try to pray before and after reading. Perhaps take notes to use for your prayer later on, or take notes on ways to improve in charity or the interior life. Perhaps you can do a form of lectio divina, or try to enter the biblical scenes as one more of the figures involved.
7) Morning offering. Perhaps you can begin the day by saying a prayer offering the entire day to God. It can be any prayer. You can offer your day, your prayers, your works, joys, sufferings (big and small), etc. This can be renewed throughout the day, and particularly as you offering the specific work you do, the specific prayers you pray, the specific sufferings you encounter, etc., throughout the day. If you already do a morning offering, you can try to do it better, with more attention. Maybe you should do it a second time after you’re more conscious. Maybe you can do it quickly, first thing, but hopping out of bed on time, when your alarm goes off, etc., and not hitting the snooze button. Maybe you can take the opportunity to look over any resolutions you’re working on keeping for the day ahead, or looking over the list of people you need to pray for that day.
There are lots of other prayerful practices to consider: stations of the cross, visits to the Blessed Sacrament, Eucharistic adoration, the Breviary, the chaplet of Divine Mercy, etc. Whatever you do, I would recommend just focusing on one of the prayer practices: either adding one you don’t do but would like to do, or simply trying to do a better job of praying by just focusing on one way of praying better. You don’t want to overwhelm yourself with too many resolutions…then you’re not likely to live any of them well. I’d recommend only one very concrete resolution–like, “starting this Lent, I will try to pray one decade of the rosary each day”—for the three areas we are discussing (prayer, fasting, almsgiving).
Since this post is about habitual practices to continue throughout the year and beyond, I’m not going to focus on what we might call literally “fasting” so much as the broader category of mortification. Mortifications are “prayers of the senses,” which can be done for penance (which Lenten fasting and mortifications are typically about), thanksgiving, petitions, etc. In general, you want to chose mortifications that won’t mortify others and that will help you live more charitably with others. So here are a few suggestions…again, I would just focus on making one concrete resolution:
1) Smiling at home. This could be good if you notice that your home life (wherever home is for you…in the family, the parish, the convent, etc.) is not the epitome of a joyful cheerfilled Christian home, and in part, because of you. Taking the time to smile, which can be especially difficult if those you live with bother you, etc., can be both very difficult and very beneficial to all.
2) Saving the best portions of food at mealtime for the others. If you do not live alone, one thing you can do is take the least appealing piece of fish, meat, salad, dessert, pasta, etc., for yourself, without drawing attention to it, and saving the best, freshest, and biggest portions for the others (spouse, kids, religious brothers, etc.).
3) Making an effort to thank the others you live and work with when they do something kind, whether it’s their job/chore/etc. anyway.
4) Working hard to say only (or mostly) positive things to the others you live with.
5) Fraternally correcting others with gentleness and charity. Making fraternal corrections can be incredibly difficult if you are not married….married couples tend to make them and receive them on a daily basis, but typically with little charity and no gentleness. The problem among those who are not married tends to be a lack of fraternal correction–often because of a real lack in fortitude–and fraternal correction is sometimes replaced by gossip and backbiting. Married couples correct each spouse frequently, but we don’t do it very well. Here’s some suggestions, which might be beneficial regardless of whether you are married or not. First, when something catches your attention that might need correction, don’t correct on the spot (unless there’s really no way to avoid it), but first take it to prayer. Pray about whether it is a sufficiently important issue (which can include very small things). What I mean is, is this more of a pet-peeve, in which case (especially for spouses) you should probably just offer it up and learn to love the pet-peeve (with prayer and God’s grace of course…which can turn this into a powerful mortification), or is it really something that could help the other’s growth in holiness, in their attempts to help draw others closer to God (apostolate), or in the well-functioning of the home. For example, if a spouse does something that is annoying to you, but not objectively wrong and not something that really will harm their sanctification, apostolate, or the home, you probably shouldn’t correct them (nor thus criticize them either). If, however, I am committed to taking out the trash, and I don’t do that, that is something that does negatively affect the smooth running of my home, and so it is appropriate for my wife to bring that to my attention. Now, how to make the correction charitably and gently? Timing is everything. Don’t make the correction when you are angry. Don’t make the correction when the other appears tired or angry. Don’t make the correction in front of others (especially in front of children). Try to correct with a smile. Try to correct with good humor if appropriate (but never with sarcasm). Try to suggest something positive in it’s place. E.g., “Jeff…I love you so much. I took the trash out for us the last three weeks in a row. It’s not a big deal, but it would be helpful if you could remember to do it. Perhaps you could write it on your schedule.” Smiling the whole time. We should strive to make it so that the fraternal corrections are more difficult to give than to receive. That’s one way we know we’re doing them well. In married life, this is rarely achieved, from my limited anecdotal experience talking with couples.
6) Going to bed on time. Going to bed on time can be a very difficult thing, but can greatly help us be more cheerful and charitable, and in general struggle better, the following day. This can be a great mortification.
7) Cutting out unnecessary distractions at work, like checking e-mail too frequently, checking blogs/Facebook/etc. By using our time well at work, which can be difficult, we can spend more time with our family and friends, which is really very important. You might want to set a goal of checking e-mail once or twice a day (depending on your job), or responding to phone calls at a set time, etc. You have to figure out what the unnecessary distractions are depending on your line of work, etc.
How do these fit under fasting? They are forms of mortifications that can be offered as prayers, and can be very penitential. They may not literally be “fasting” but they can serve as powerful concrete ways to grow closer to God by seeking crosses to bear each day. Lent is a great time to begin to take on some of these crosses. I’d pick one area for this Lent to work on.
The only suggestions I’ll make here are two:
1) Take a look at your charitable donations. Can you afford to give a little more? Even a dollar, even 50 cents, can be worth giving, if you can afford it. You pick the place to give: your parish, a Catholic organization, a health organization, some group that helps the poor, some cause you believe in, etc.
2) take to your prayer your spending habits. See if there is any frivolous spending. Perhaps you can cut out your trips to the coffee shop, save money by making coffee at home. Or, perhaps go to the coffee shop one time a week fewer than you normally do. I use the coffee shop as an example. But really consider how you spend. Is it out of vanity? Is it out of caprice? Then, with the money you save, even if it’s a dollar a week, you can give it charitably: to your parish, to some cause you believe in, or even just as a little cash to give to some beggar on the street (or with which to buy food for some beggar on the street).
Again, these are just suggestions. As Christians, we should be examining ourselves regularly on these types of issues, but Lent is a particularly appropriate time to start a new spiritual habit, such as the ones I suggest above, or ones I have not suggested. Let’s work hard to make this Lent fruitful. With God’s grace we will exit Lent and enter Easter closer to Him, and more charitable to others.