Lent is a penitential season, and so we rightly think of Lent as a somber time to turn away from sin and toward Christ. But did you know the word lent actually comes from an old English word meaning "springtime?" Lent therefore is also a time of growth and renewal.
The season of Lent is meant to be a time marked by prayer, fasting and almsgiving (charitable acts). Here are some quick tips to help you get the most out of this Lent.
Don't Just Fast
It's common for Catholics to "give something up" for Lent; often it's food related -- sweets, coffee, alcohol, meat, and so forth. This goes hand in hand with the long tradition of fasting which the Church has always upheld, and which goes back to ancient Jewish practice.
Food is good. Not only do we need a certain amount of food to sustain our lives, but we also derive enjoyment from eating. This makes fasting a good form of penance and a good spiritual discipline. By voluntarily denying ourselves the licit pleasure of certain kinds of food that we like, it becomes easier for us to resist illicit temptations when they arise.
But to be spiritually beneficial, our fasting must be accompanied by prayer. Fasting without prayer is a diet plan, and Lent is not just a Catholic diet. It's about spiritual growth, not losing weight. Over and over again, in the scriptures, in the Catechism, in the writings of the Church Fathers and other saints, these two things are always mentioned together -- prayer and fasting, prayer and fasting, prayer and fasting. They are meant to go hand in hand.
So while it's good to "give something up" for Lent, you should at the same time increase your prayer. There are many different forms this can take. You can pray a daily rosary. You can try to get to a daily Mass a couple of times during the week. You can begin your day with a morning offering. You can do an examination of conscience each night before bed. You can simply set aside five minutes during the day to be silent and allow God to fill your heart.
A good rule of thumb is to start with your current prayer routine and add something a little extra. If you already pray the rosary every day, try adding a Marian litany afterwards. On the other hand, if you currently are not praying at all, I wouldn't recommend jumping in with a daily rosary, daily Mass, reading the Bible for 30 minutes, and spending an hour in silent Adoration each day. Don't set the bar too high; all you will end up doing is frustrating yourself. The point is to grow spiritually, and we all must grow starting from where we currently are.
The same holds true for fasting. Don't try to give up too much. The point is to discipline yourself not torture yourself. Set yourself up for succeess, not failure.
Many Catholics also like to use Lent as an opportunity for extra spiritual reading. It's hard to go wrong with the Bible. You might choose one of the books of the Bible that has always interested you and make a personal scripture study out of it. Or you might make a daily devotion out of reading the scripture readings for the Mass of the day. You can find these daily readings on the USCCB web site. You can even have them sent to your email each morning.
Outside of the Bible, there is no end to good spiritual books to read. St. Augustine's Confessions is the most read non-Biblical Christian book of all time. Have you read it? If you are looking for a more contemporary author, The World's First Love, by Fulton Sheen (or really anything Sheen has written), or Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis are modern classics. For something even more modern, you can read one of Matthew Kelley's books such as Dynamic Catholic, written specifically to inspire Catholics to reboot their faith. Ask someone whose faith you admire what books have been especially helpful to them.
If you haven't been very involved in campus ministry, or not as involved as you would like to be, Lent is a great time to check out what we've got going on. I especially recommend joining one of our Bible Study small groups. We have one that meets on Mondays at 5:00pm and another that meets on Thursdays at 6:00pm, both at the Starbucks on campus. These are student-led groups that explore the scriptures together each week and discuss faith, life, their joys and struggles. These groups are open to anyone, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, and are a great shot-in-the-arm for your spiritual life.
I also encourage you to accompany us to the Community Table on Tuesday afternoons, where we serve meals to the hungry from 4:00-6:00pm. This ties directly in to the almsgiving emphasis of Lent, performing a work of mercy to help those in need. While Tuesdays are our regular volunteer days, Community Table needs volunteers all during the week, so feel free to go in any day on your own. There are, of course, many other wonderful charitable organizations who could benefit from your service -- the Smoky Mountain Pregnancy Care Center, Safe Harbor, Neighbors in Need, local nursing homes and more.
Return to the Sacraments
Needless to say, if you've been away from the sacraments for a while, Lent is the perfect opportunity to come back. Because Lent is a penitential season, most parishes will have penance services and extra times for Confession.
Here at CCM, we have Confession available every Sunday at 3:30 pm (30 minutes before Mass). We usually try to schedule an additional opportunity for Confession one Wednesday evening during Lent, so stay tuned for that. You can also contact Fr. Voitus to make an appointment (you can contact him through St. Mary's office number or email).
If it's been a long time since you've been to Confession, here is a simple one-page guide that takes you through it step-by-step. You can also watch this short youtube video that walks you through the process. It's also perfectly OK to tell Father, "It's been a long time since I've done this so can you please walk me through it?" He will guide you in making a good confession.
Of course it's important to spend some time before Confession thinking about your past actions, identifying your sins, and turning away from them in repentance. An "examination of conscience" is a good resource to help you do this. These are generally lists of questions meant to lead you in self-reflection. There are many out there: here is a short one from the Fathers of Mercy, and an even shorter one from the USCCB.
If you've been away from Mass for a while, we'd love to have you back. Our campus Mass is Sunday at 4:00 pm. Sunday Masses at St. Mary's are at 9:00 and 11:00 am. Remember that participating in Sunday Mass is a serious obligation for Catholics, so if you've missed Mass for anything other than a serious reason (illness, for example), be sure to get here a little early so you'll have time for Confession beforehand. Your mom taught you to wash your hands before eating dinner; you should take the same care to prepare your soul to receive Christ!
Most of all, be mindful that Lent is not just another time during the year, just as Sunday is not just another day of the week. It's a time of repentance and spiritual growth, but it can only be that for you if you want it to be. Take advantage of this special season of grace offered by the Church to get all that you can out of this Lent. God bless!