Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, and it’s never too soon — or too late — to begin thinking about our Lenten penance and devotions. Lent is a penitential season, and the Church includes prayer, works of charity, and self-denial under the umbrella of “penance” (see Canon 1249 in the Code of Canon Law). Full observance of Lent therefore includes prayer, fasting, and charity.
There are certain penances the Church prescribes for us — fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and abstaining from meat on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays during Lent. But other than this, the Church encourages us to choose our own Lenten penances.
Let’s make a quick review of what is meant by fasting and abstinence before going over some advice of how to choose our own additional penance.
What the Church means by “fasting” is limiting yourself to one meal per day. This does not preclude taking additional food, if needed, provided that the additional food does not equal another full meal. This allowance comes from a provision made by Pope Paul VI in his Apostolic Constitution Paenitemini (On Penance) in 1966. The Pope wrote:
The law of fasting allows only one full meal a day, but does not prohibit taking some food in the morning and evening, observing — as far as quantity and quality are concerned — approved local custom.
Paenitemini III, 2
The law of fasting binds all Catholics ages 18 to 59. Those who are pregnant, nursing, or ill, or who otherwise cannot fast to due health reasons are not bound by the law of fasting.
By “abstinence” the Church means abstaining from meat. But this is not the same as a strict vegetarian or vegan diet. The Church only asks the faithful to abstain from the meat of warm-blooded animals. So no beef, pork, or chicken. But fish is OK, as would be reptile meat. Broth, gravy and sauces made from meat stock are also permitted.
The law of abstinence binds all Catholics ages 14 and up.
But the Church encourages the faithful to take on additional penances as a means of growing closer to God during Lent. You can think of prayer as helping us to grow in love of God, works of charity as helping us grow in love of neighbor, and self-denial as helping us to develop the discipline needed to resist temptation and turn away from sin.
It is important that we consider all three of these aspects in our observance of Lent, as they all tie in together. Fasting without prayer, for example, would just be a diet plan. Doing charitable works without prayer is humanitarianism. Going on a diet and doing humanitarian work are both good things, but prayer is what makes them spiritual works and what gives them their true penitential character.
The Church recommends that we fast generally during Lent (not just on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday) and that we increase our time spent in prayer. But she leaves the specifics up to us. This is wise, because each of us is in a different situation, both in terms of our spiritual life as well as the day-to-day demands of our everyday life. So we shouldn’t compare our Lenten practices to others; and we should use prudence to help us determine the best way for us to approach our Lenten penance.
When deciding what you are going to “do for Lent,” I encourage you to pick something realistic that you will be able to keep going throughout Lent.
Saying you want to pray for an hour a day is great! But if you aren’t praying at all right now, you will likely find it hard to commit to an hour every day. Try praying for 10 minutes every day to start and see how that goes. On the other hand, if you are already praying for 30 minutes every morning, adding another 30 minutes in the evening may be very doable for you.
If you are currently on a 5000 calorie a day diet, deciding to go on a bread and water fast for Lent might send your body into shock! A more prudent thing would be start by cutting out snacks between meals and see how that goes.
Don’t say, “I’m going to read the whole Bible this Lent,” when you can barely find time to read your homework assignments for class. Reading a little from John’s gospel each day is more reasonable.
Being practical with your penance helps set you up for success. This doesn’t mean choosing something that will be easy. You want your penance to stretch you a bit. But you also want it to be doable. A good rule of thumb is: hard enough that it’s a sacrifice, but easy enough that you can do it.
It also helps to be as specific as possible. Don’t say “I’m going to pray more this Lent.” Because you won’t. Every Christian says they want to pray more, but if your intention is that nebulous, it’s not going to happen. Commit yourself to something specific, like praying a rosary every day, or doing lectio divina with the daily scripture reading, or going to daily Mass. How and when are you going to pray?
Don’t just say, “I’m going to read more scripture this Lent,” because without a plan, you won’t do it. Be specific. Say, “I’m going to read the gospels” and then make a game plan about how you will go about it. That might be reading for 20 minutes each day. Or it might mean reading a certain number of chapters each day. But think about precisely what you want to do and be specific in your goals.
The same is true of fasting. If you want to eat two meals a day instead of three, decide ahead of time which meal you will give up. Think about your eating habits — not just where and what you eat, but who you eat with — and how your fasting will affect your schedule.
By being specific, you are giving yourself an accomplishable goal, which makes it far more likely you will be able to maintain your penance throughout all of Lent.
Should You Give Up Sin?
Some Lenten guides out there advise people to “fast from injustice” or “give up gossip” for Lent, encouraging people to turn away from sin and vice. Giving up sinful habits is great, but that’s called repentance, not fasting. You should give up sin for life, not for Lent!
We should repent from sin because sin is evil. Fasting involves giving up something good. That’s what makes our fast a worthy sacrifice. Fasting is about voluntarily denying ourselves a lesser good for the sake of a greater good, so that we grow in spiritual discipline.
Here are just a few suggestions about what you might want to take on for prayer:
- Go to daily Mass once or twice per week (as your schedule allows). Daily Mass at St. Mary’s is at 9:00am on Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and at 5:30pm on Wednesday.
- Go to Adoration. We have Adoration on campus every Wednesday at 8:00pm, and St. Mary’s has Adoration every Friday at 9:30am (after Mass).
- Pray the Rosary. We pray the rosary together every Sunday before Mass at 3:30pm. But you can pray the rosary on your own at any time! Or invite a group of friends to pray with you.
- Read and reflect upon the daily scripture readings. We have copies of the Word Among Us magazine available at CCM that have all the daily Mass readings for Lent. You can also get them online at the USCCB web site.
- Download the iBreviary app and pray one of the hours from the Liturgy of the Hours each day (Night prayer or Morning prayer would be great ways to start or end your day).
- Pray the Angelus at 6:00am, noon, and/or 6:00pm each day (the traditional times for this devotion).
- Fast more than just on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Choose certain days to limit yourself to one meal — maybe every Wednesday and Friday. Or fast from one meal, like breakfast, each day.
- Give up all sweets and desserts for Lent
- Wake up an hour or a half-hour earlier than usual (use that time for prayer)
- Cold showers only
- Give up caffeine, alcohol, or tobacco
- Give up social media, or limit your time to only 30 minutes each day
- Go vegetarian for Lent
- Give up all beverages but water
For charitable works:
- Volunteer with CCM at the Community Table on Tuesday afternoons from 4-6. Have class on Tuesday? They need volunteers most other days during the week. Contact them.
- Volunteer at the Smoky Mountain Pregnancy Care Center.
- Donate clothing you no longer need to an area thrift store
- Pick up trash around campus or from the road side
- Clean up messes left by your roommate without complaining
- Have a birthday during Lent? Donate it! Ask people to give to a charity instead of buying you a gift.
Use Your Discretion
These ideas are just suggestions. One final word of wisdom as you decide what penance to undertake this Lent — remember that while the Church requires the faithful to perform penance, she leaves the form of penance up to our discretion.
Since your Lenten penance is self-imposed, that means it’s OK for you to make changes as you go. Use your discretion. If something you thought was going to be a challenge turns out to be easier than expected, consider adding an additional penance. On the other hand, if something turns out to be harder than anticipated and just isn’t working out, feel free to back off a bit. Maybe something sounded like a good idea, but ends up just not being practical. You set the parameters of your penance so you can change them if needed.
If you are worried about it, feel free to talk to your pastor or campus minister for spiritual advice, but don’t be scrupulous. The point is to grow in your faith, repent from sin, and draw closer to God. Whatever penance helps you to do this is worth doing!