Q: Lent is obviously right around the corner, and I never seem to know what to “do” for this season.  I’ve tried giving things up, but it always seems a bit “hollow”. What should I do?

A: This is a great question.  I think we all face this same challenge.  We can find ourselves walking the tightrope between something so impossible that we end up abandoning it in a week, or we choose something so minimal that it is essentially worthless.

In addition, it can be hard to be honest about our motives.  Are we giving up something out of love of God or because we would like to lose some weight?  Are we doing this thing “just to see if we can make it”?

What is Lent for?  What is the point of the whole thing, anyway?  Broadly speaking, Lent was originally the last step for people who were preparing for Baptism at the Easter Vigil Mass.  After roughly three years of preparation, the final weeks leading up to Easter were called a time of “Purification and Enlightenment”.  Those future-Christians would examine their lives more thoroughly for areas where they needed to be purified from things that interfered with God’s will in their lives.  And they would strive to learn more about who God is and the life of Christian discipleship.

…the original purpose of Lent was to become more and more conformed to God’s will.

So the original purpose of Lent was to become more and more conformed to God’s will.  What in my life needs to go?  What needs to get stronger?  How can I live like Christ?

Author Steven Covey reminded his readers to “Begin with the end in mind”.  What is your end?  What is the goal?  The goal is to become more like God; to become a saint.  This needs to be your goal.  Knowing yourself and knowing where you need to grow, which Lenten disciplines will help you become the saint God is calling you to be?

Let’s make this as simple as possible.  Jesus talks about three areas that are indispensable regarding the Christian life: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.  For Lent, do one thing in each of these three areas.

Prayer.  What is one way that you can pray every day throughout Lent that will strengthen your relationship with Christ?  Again, this is not merely about “challenging yourself”.  This is about asking, “What will help me get to know the Lord better?”  You know yourself.  You know what will actually help you grow.  For the last couple of years, in addition to my normal prayer time, I spend an extra 15 minutes slowly reading and reflecting on the Gospels at night. It isn’t huge, but it really helps.

Fasting.  While we are required to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, your “fast” can be almost anything.  If you have a difficult relationship with food, feel free to choose a penance that is unrelated to nourishment.  A penance can be any time we say no to a good and natural desire out of love for God.  For example, someone might decide to only check their email (or social media, or their smart phone) at certain times during the day.  This would be an act of discipline and sacrifice oriented toward purifying their heart.  Your penance could be not sweetening your coffee.  Another penance could be getting out of bed the moment the alarm goes off and not hitting the snooze button.

Almsgiving.  While both prayer and fasting could be seen as being “all about you”, almsgiving is oriented toward the good of others.  Who could you help this Lent?  While this could be actual “giving money”, it could also be “giving time”.  I know of people who have decided to write one letter per day throughout Lent.  They decided that these letters would be positive notes of encouragement and gratitude.  Of course, almsgiving could also be supporting the material needs of others.  There are groups everywhere who need the support of Christians.  One note: if you participate in Operation Rice Bowl sponsored by Catholic Relief Services, do it like Jesus.  I mean to say: do it on purpose.  Make the decision to place money in that little cardboard box.  Not just the change you don’t want, but even the money that you do want.  If you crack it open at the end, you should only see silver and green.  (“I gave some poor people a bunch of pennies for Lent…Just like Jesus would do.  It was either that or throw them away…”.)

the question is “God, what can I decide to do during this season that will make me more like you?”

One more thing: please don’t get all hung up on “I can’t tell anyone what I’m doing for Lent because I’ll become prideful.”  First, answering someone’s question isn’t the same thing as “wanting to appear to others to be fasting”; you are just answering a question.  Secondly, the things you are doing for Lent are probably pretty unimpressive.  I mean, you might be the “hardcore Catholic” on your block, but if you remember that Saint Francis of Assisi (and others) spent one Lent eating literally nothing, people knowing that you have given up beer isn’t likely to give you a big head.  It is probably more humbling to have to admit the smallness of what you have been called to.  Ultimately, the question is “God, what can I decide to do during this season that will make me more like you?”