Most of the advice at this time of the year is focused on “give something up, take something on.” That’s a good plan, but some creative priests in my life have suggested practices that have reshaped Lent for me.
Over the years, I’ve been given penances in confession that are not of the “pray a decade of the rosary in reparation” variety, as good as those are. Every once in a while, a priest will dig deeper into the burden I have brought and give me a suggestion that pulls at whatever is out of whack in my soul and can’t be taken care of in a few minutes in a pew. These last far beyond the confessional. They have become part of my daily life, tools I take out whenever I feel that perpetual brokenness again.
Here are a few of my all-time favorites from the confessional, all of them useful Lenten practices.
Whenever you call someone by something other than his name, especially if it is a negative characteristic or action, pray a Hail Mary asking her to pray for this beloved child of God. Then notice something positive about him and say it out loud. I got this one after struggling for a long time with the all too common temptation to judge people by only what I see rather than remembering the whole of the person. Believe me, I prayed a lot at first, but slowly, over the course of the month between confessions, I found myself far less apt to rush to judgment. In a world where it’s all too easy to categorize, and therefore dehumanize, others as “conservatives,” “liberals,” “feminists,” “unorthodox,” and so on, reminding ourselves that these are fellow persons beloved by God, so much so that he died for them in the very sin that separates them (and us) from him puts Lent (and us) in a very different light.
Do something nice for someone you dislike without taking credit. Make it significant and personal, not just a gesture. This is the Lenten version of Secret Santa. It turns out to be much harder than I thought to pull this off. It’s necessary to find out what might be significant for that person, and that requires connection that I’d rather not make. But reconciliation is the message of Lent, isn’t it?
For one whole day, let those around you have their way in matters of choice. In a society that is increasingly individualistic, and in which we are all convinced not only of our rightness but our importance, this is a good reminder. A related penance: be the last one off the plane. I was surprised how choosing not to rush out of my seat and push my way to the next stop on my journey affected my attitude and my whole day. It works equally well to be the last one off the bus, out of the car or—here’s a thought—out of church on Sunday.
Skip on the way to your car. Believe me, this one was not pretty. But as the burden of Lent increases, there’s not only a need, but room for letting a little joy in. After all, there is Laetare Sunday when the mood lightens and the vestments do too. Those things that bring us closer to God ultimately bring us joy, even if they are unpleasant in the moment. Added bonus: skipping in public is a little embarrassing for an adult—a good reminder that part of the joy of Christianity is the ability to let go of our self-consciousness and live, move, and have our being in Christ.
Downsize your purse. Physically letting go of the big bag of everything, reducing it to a pouch just big enough for a few dollars, a credit card and my license, with my keys attached turned out to be very liberating. It was a physical reminder of Christ’s admonition to his Disciples to go out into the world taking nothing with them. Even something as simple as this helped me be more aware of the way God was at work in my life, and how so much of what I carry with me, physically and spiritually, is more burden than benefit.
Get rid of a bag of stuff every day in Lent. Throw it out, pass it on, give it away—but get rid of it. Most of us are too tied down by things to enjoy the beautiful freedom we have been given, and I am no exception. Too often our possessions possess us, just like the rich young man.
Say no. At one point in my life, I was so busy with volunteer and professional obligations that family life became hectic and tense. In our over-scheduled society, this is not an uncommon problem. For the six weeks of Lent, I refused to take on anything new, telling people I had given up saying yes for Lent. As a result, the next six months of my life were much quieter, family life improved and I learned an important lesson: saying yes to the important things means saying no to some that are not as important. Every yes has a no.
Find joy in the distance. I got this one the week after a friend had committed suicide and all of us left behind were struggling to make some sense of it. This penance reminded me that it’s important to accept what comes as part of life, even when God seems far away.
And there’s this one: Pray the Litany of Humility. I’d gone to the confessional with that temptation to judge again. The priest asked me whether I was familiar with the litany and I said yes. With a good-natured grin, he opined that it didn’t seem to be doing much good— and told me to keep at it. I did, and now the words are so familiar that they come to mind unbidden when I need them.
It’s a journey, after all, this business of getting closer to God, this growth in holiness. Persistence and perspective are all part of a blessed Lent.
Barbara Golder had a 40-year career in medicine and law, including health care ethics. She is now the award-winning author of the ‘Lady Doc’ mystery series and serves as Director of Adult Faith Formation and Evangelization at the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She blogs at ladydoclawyer.com.