“Catholic guilt” is a sentiment so common, it has its own (relatively lengthy) Wikipedia page.
In many circles, the term is considered a criticism of Catholic culture. But many more Catholics I know would tell you it’s a healthy response to the sense of responsibility and accountability instilled in our hearts by our faith.
Either way, I think Lent is the season in which so many of us feel this tug most acutely. Even many non-practicing Catholics I know embrace some very popish traditions during this time: receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday, abstaining from meat on Fridays, or giving up a favorite treat.
Lenten practices include fasting, abstinence, and almsgiving. All are meant to help us remove our focus from ourselves, contemplate the suffering of Christ, and unite with one another in prayer and selflessness.
Pope Benedict XIV has had a lot to say on the importance of this season: “The observance of Lent is the very badge of the Christian warfare. By it we prove ourselves not to be enemies of Christ. … Should mankind grow remiss in their observance of Lent, it would be a detriment to God’s glory, a disgrace to the Catholic religion, and a danger to Christian souls.”
So it’s kind of a big deal.
Can Self-restraint Become Selfish?
In past years, I have fallen into the trap of letting my Lenten observances become self-centered. I ask myself, “What should I give up for Lent this year?” with little or no regard for the impact I can and should have on my community. I even think (though I hate to admit it), “What bad habit can Lent help me break this year?”
Those aren’t bad questions, but they don’t really achieve the “prove myself not to be an enemy of Christ” purpose all that explicitly, either. So this year, I tried to ask myself some different questions as I discerned what penitential practice to take up between February 14 and Easter:
- How can I devote more of my mental energy to others?
- In what ways can I show God and neighbor how grateful I am for them?
- Is there an opportunity to substitute some neutral or bad habit with prayer on a daily basis?
- How can I ensure that any small sacrifice I make stays vivid, instead of becoming less thought-provoking as the season goes on and the sacrifice becomes habitual?
- What are some ways to incorporate more prayer into my bustling life as a working mom of two small children?
Finding the time for prayer seemed simple, if I do it in conjunction with whatever sacrifice I make: every time I want to reach for that thing, I can say a prayer. And incorporating others into those prayers was simple, too, because I can offer that prayer for whatever intention I choose.
However, during past years (except the year I gave up cheese, because that was HARD), I thought less and less about whatever treat I gave up over time. As the season of Lent went on, the lack of that indulgence became a matter of habit, so those small opportunities for prayer and reflection became relatively infrequent.
So I wanted, this year, to be more intentional about the sacrifice itself, as well as the prayers I’m offering up in those small moments of want throughout the day.
A Schedule of Observances
With this in mind, I settled on a very different approach, and I’m nervously excited to see how it goes.
In short, each week I’ll give up something different so that the sense of sacrifice feels novel throughout the season. The prayers will feel fresh because I’ll have a particular intention to keep in mind each week as well.
Here’s the “schedule” I’ve put together:
- Week 1 (2/14-2/20)
- Fast: cheese
- Intention: the unborn
- Week 2 (2/21-2/27)
- Fast: condiments
- Intention: the poor
- Week 3 (2/28-3/6)
- Fast: sweets
- Intention: the reversion of those who have strayed from the Church
- Week 4 (3/7-3/13)
- Fast: Facebook
- Intention: my children
- Week 5 (3/14-3/20)
- Fast: coffee
- Intention: souls in Purgatory
- Week 6 (3/21-3/28)
- Fast: snacks*
- Intention: my husband
- Paschal Triduum (3/29-3/31)
- Fast: social media
- Focus: glorifying God
*I’m nursing and don’t want to risk my milk supply, so when I say I’m giving up snacks, I’m talking eating between meals for pleasure. I’ll still need to eat if I’m hungry, but I’ll keep it to non-indulgent things.
The Triduum—that is, the three days leading up to Easter—is technically not a part of Lent. It’s a single celebration in three liturgies (check out this page from the USCCB for more info), and its focus is on the final days of Christ as well as the Resurrection. So instead of a prayer intention during this time, I’ll utter some extra Glory Bes and similar praises.
Additionally, I’m also hoping to give more life to this blog during Lent, like I did last year—it’s a very positive channel for reflection and prayer for me, and writing each post is a labor of love. (If you’re following along, you’ll notice a fresh design and you’ll probably see more frequent, more casual posts moving forward. I’m making this more of a mommy blog to help me stay active with it.)
Finally, Erik and I are going to say a family rosary every week—either all at once, or in decades at a time—with the kids “participating” as well. The family who prays together, stays together, and we want to be better about building this practice with our babies.
A Prayer for Lent
I hope you’ll join me in a prayerful journey of fasting, abstinence, and almsgiving this Lent. Here’s a good one I found to help set the stage in our hearts.
God, heavenly Father,
look upon me and hear my prayer
during this holy Season of Lent.
By the good works You inspire,
help me to discipline my body
and to be renewed in spirit.
Without You I can do nothing.
By Your Spirit help me to know what is right
and to be eager in doing Your will.
Teach me to find new life through penance.
Keep me from sin, and help me live
by Your commandment of love.
God of love, bring me back to You.
Send Your Spirit to make me strong
in faith and active in good works.
May my acts of penance bring me Your forgiveness,
open my heart to Your love,
and prepare me for the coming feast
of the Resurrection of Jesus.
Lord, during this Lenten Season,
nourish me with Your Word of life
and make me one
with You in love and prayer.
Fill my heart with Your love
and keep me faithful to the Gospel of Christ.
Give me the grace to rise above my human weakness.
Give me new life by Your Sacraments, especially the Mass.
Father, our source of life,
I reach out with joy to grasp Your hand;
let me walk more readily in Your ways.
Guide me in Your gentle mercy,
for left to myself I cannot do Your Will.
Father of love, source of all blessings,
help me to pass from my old life of sin
to the new life of grace.
Prepare me for the glory of Your Kingdom.
I ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son,
Who lives and reigns with You
and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever.