Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Strict Lent - How to Make it Work!

Today, Taylor Marshall (whose blog I recommend) shared a story of how he ruined his Easter one year by trying to go too hard on himself at Lent -How My Strict Lent Once Ruined Easter – A Lesson on Lenten Crash and Burn.  Excellent post - go and read it!

I wrote the following as a response on how I moderate my Lenten penance.

1. Talk to Your Priest

I tend to "go hard" (this year, for example, I'm giving up meat, coffee and Facebook) but I moderate this in several ways. One is I take the advice of my priest; if he says something is too much, I believe him. Dr. Marshall mentions this point and it's very important; most priests have seen enough crash and burn stories that they can see it coming if you're being too hung up on going all out. I have done this since I first joined the Catholic Church (this is only my 3rd Lent) and priests are very helpful in giving direction like this.
2. No Penance on Sunday!
We must remember that Sundays are not days of penance; it's not that penance is "optional" but, from what I understand, it is actually incorrect, since every Sunday is like a mini Paschal feast, we are to celebrate on Sundays. Every Sunday I will be enjoying my meat and coffee (I'll stay off FB, though, since that could lead to a habit, and it's not really "festive" to go on FB in any way); this way it's only 6 days at a time, and these urges don't build up so much. I enjoy it thoroughly and in moderation. We're usually at my parents' house for lunch on Sundays, and they inevitably make a nice roast. My mom has coffee with the desert, and I wait till it's served (rather than gorging into the coffee the minute Mass ends), enjoy two cups with cake, maybe one more later in the day and leave it at that. (Basically, what I would do on a normal Sunday.)
Make sure the festiveness of Sundays is a celebrating Christ, not just gorging in the things you abstained from; we eat meat and cake, drink wine and coffee and spend our Sundays with family to celebrate the Resurrection. If you find yourself going crazy for meat (or whatever you gave up) on Sundays, it's probably a good early indication that you may need to make adjustments and you should talk to your priest to guide you through those adjustments, especially if you haven't yet!

3. Rededicate Penance to Christ

Even with the 6 day waits, it can be disastrous to start thinking about our penance day in and day out, and even more disastrous to become frustrated that you can't stop thinking about it. Meat isn't really an issue for me (my family eats meat only 2 or 3 times a week as it is), and I usually feel the break from FB is a relief; coffee could be a killer for me. But if I find myself thinking about coffee, instead of fighting it (which just turns into a frustrating battle with yourself over something silly), I let myself enjoy looking to forward to coffee, and then I pray a decade of the rosary or something like that, thanking the Lord for the coffee I'm going to enjoy on Sunday and rededicating what I have given up to Him.

4. Make the Penance a Gift

When I want coffee in the morning, I make a cup for my wife instead, who doesn't give it up. This seems like it would be counter-productive, bringing the temptation too close, but for me it works. I feel a certain satisfaction that someone else has enjoyed it and that I have made my sacrifice a gift. If you give up meat, buy a roast for the old widow next door (who in all likelihood hasn't given up meat.) We did that last year. If the temptation is too much, then find another kind of gift to give instead.

5. Don't Isolate Yourself

Try penances that other people around you are doing. Support helps. In the old days, besides being holier (as Dr. Marshall pointed out), people had the support of EVERYONE around them doing the same penance. Some Catholic and especially Eastern Christian communities still have that. We as North American Christians don't. Meat isn't hard at home for us, but my parents (who we visit often) rarely have a meal without meat. My wife and I support each other, and my parents are very understanding, so we get by. As for coffee, my wife doesn't give it up, but she also never makes coffee for herself at home (that's my job!) So, I don't have to smell coffee brewing from the kitchen, unless I'm the one who did it as a gift for my wife.

If you know that people bring cookies to work every day and you love them, or there's a bakery you walk by every morning, it could be torture to give up sweets. Don't choose penances to torture yourself. I give things up that are important, but not things that will be wafting in my face all the time.

6. Leave Yourself Some Pleasures

I love beer and wine. Having given up coffee, I can still sit down in the evening and enjoy a glass of wine with other people. I also enjoy my pipe. If I tried to give up alcohol and tobacco too, it would be torture since I wouldn't have that little pleasure to fall back on - and I can enjoy the pipe even on Ash Wednesday or Good Friday when I'm otherwise fasting as per the rule! Don't try to eliminate every one of the most pleasurable items, but rather specifically choose a couple that you WON'T give up.

7. Build Up Little by Little

In my three Lents I've progressed from giving up one thing to three. I don't expect to increase this by one item every year, but I hope that in 20 years I can handle more than I can now. Disciplines are developed with time, not over night. I will also not feel bad if one year I have to go easier on myself for some reason or another.

So, it's possible to go hard for Lent, but it's not by any means necessary or even helpful to torture yourself.  I think these little guidelines I've created for myself have been a big help.

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