Having a Plan for Lent

Having a Plan for Lent February 6, 2018
It’s very easy, amid the hustle and bustle of life, to allow Lent to sneak up on us. As a result, we may find ourselves receiving ashes without any clear idea how to participate in the grace that is Lent. Like many, we may simply default to what we did last year perhaps giving up sweets or adding prayer or even volunteering in some corporal work of mercy.  While these are certainly good, in themselves and without the proper spiritual disposition, they can lead to simply fulfilling our obligations and nothing more.  Lent, like all things important, needs a plan; a specific strategy with one goal in mind, to enter more fully into Christ’s passion so that, on Easter, we may enter more fully into His resurrection.  
Prior to the Second Vatican Council, the Church specifically set aside a liturgical time to prepare for Lent. Lasting from what was called Septuagesima Sunday to Shrove Tuesday, this three-week period just prior to Lent reminded the faithful that the Lenten season was right around the corner and to get ready. The old English word Shrove means “to hear” as in hearing confessions. Thus, among other things, it was the practice to enter Lent in a state of grace and not wait until Holy Week. This medieval practice should give us a hint as to the first step in any Lenten plan.  By entering Lent in a state of grace, we are better able to practice Lent with the spiritual vigor necessary to embrace our Lord’s passion. 
Beyond making a good confession, and following the prescribed Lenten days of fast and abstinence, it is customary for Catholics to engage in additional penitential practices for the whole of Lent. Though they can fall into three general categories (prayer, fasting and almsgiving); these additional practices, while strongly encouraged, are not regulated by the Church. I typically advise my spiritual directees, as we devise their Lenten plan, to consider a practice counter to one of their biggest spiritual challenges. If, for example, custody of the tongue (gossip) is an issue, we can develop a plan around this vice with corresponding virtues that may include more prayer, fasting and corporal works of mercy.  This approach, which can continue in some form beyond Lent, enables them to address specific attitudes and behaviors that impede greater intimate communion with Jesus Christ.    
There are three guiding principles that can make a Lenten plan successful.  First, it needs to be clearly focused on one major spiritual challenge.  To be sure, we all struggle with many challenges, but if we try to address all or even some of them together, we can become easily overwhelmed. Second, the penitential practice should be reasonable and measured.  This is where a confessor, spiritual director or even confidant can be helpful.  Third, make some provision for failure.  Circumstances may change or we may become weak and, as a result, fail to fulfill some of our plan. The danger here is an abandonment of the plan all together. This is why I suggest building into the plan a way to “bounce-back.” 
Just as the cross is essential to the resurrection, so a good Lent is essential to a good Easter.  Taking some time to plan provides the opportunity to pick up our cross and more closely follow Jesus who, in the midst of our Lent, draws so close to us that he can embrace us. 
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