The 40 days of Lent may be approached through a number of philosophies, but ultimately, the goal of each is to bring one closer to God.
Some people vow each year to make a sacrifice to show, on some small scale, appreciation for Jesus’ ultimate gift to mankind.
For others, giving something up is counterproductive because it creates negative emotions. Instead, they seek to make a positive change within themselves, or reach out to others in the way of Christ.
‘A lifelong process’
Trappist Father Kevin Walsh, of Mepkin Abbey, said in his community the monks are always living Lent. He said this is not about deprivations and penances, but the reality that “we are always turning toward God. Conversion is a lifelong process.”
In an e-mail to The Miscellany, he wrote that Lenten disciplines should foster attentiveness to God. He said the sacrifice a person chooses to make should not put the focus on oneself, but demonstrate a desire to be open to the mercy of God.
Jesus demonstrated this mercy when he entered the human world and spent time with sinners, “offering them loving acceptance with an invitation to growth and change,” Father Walsh said.
Monks strive for this by living an ongoing conversion that touches all the dimensions of their lives, he said. Christians can also do this by taking Lenten penance or penitential practices and carrying them forward into their whole life with God.
Father Walsh said this happens not in one choice or one decision, but encompasses everything one does for the rest of their life.
For this reason, religious leaders suggest choosing a sacrifice that will continue to bring one closer to God, even after Lent.
Tony Longobardo, director of religious education at St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Edgefield, said observing Lent is a deeply personal experience that is about much more than giving something up for 40 days.
He said it is a time to contemplate one’s relationship with the Lord, assess spiritual health, and ultimately repent.
“A significant part of this process revolves around establishing a level of self-mastery,” Longobardo wrote in an e-mail. “This is what some might call ‘gaining control of our appetites’ or a ‘quieting of the flesh.’ Fasting and abstinence are prime examples of this type of exercise, which in the end is not meant to deprive but to enrich.”
He said choosing the right sacrifice will not only improve the person, but also their spiritual life. It should bring Christians closer to understanding and appreciating Jesus’ death on the cross, the sorrow of Mary and the disciples, and then their joy on Easter.
“A Lent well spent makes Easter much more meaningful,” he said.
Make it positive
Mary Harden said some people are not good at giving things up. Maybe they choose something that isn’t really important, or feel guilty when they cheat. Or maybe they count down the days until they can indulge again, turning Lent into something they must suffer through each year.
She suggested taking a more positive approach, such as helping others or setting aside extra time for God. She knows people who volunteer weekly at a soup kitchen, or help elderly neighbors.
Harden, who is the director of faith formation at St. Philip Neri in Fort Mill, said she dedicates herself to being a daily communicant.
“I don’t think we’ll ever fully feel Jesus’ suffering,” she said. “Lent is about remembering Jesus’ suffering in the best way you choose.”
Understanding the sacrifice
Deacon James Moore, director of religious education at Blessed Sacrament in Charleston, said each person’s sacrifice depends on what works best for them.
He suggested looking at the things that take one away from God, such as TV, and then giving that thing up in order to spend the time with God in prayer, meditation, or religious reading.
“It’s not just giving something up,” he said. “Sometimes it’s taking something on that causes a sacrifice in your life.”
Whatever a person chooses, the sense of discomfort or loss must not overshadow the goal of becoming closer to Christ.
If a person elects to take a cold shower each morning in empathy for Jesus’ suffering, that person must be able to come away feeling positive and uplifted, Deacon Moore said.
He said if the sacrifice creates angry or resentful emotions, then it becomes counterproductive — a burden that drives the person away from the Lord.
“You will truly understand the sacrifice of Lent when you feel the pinch of what you gave up and you’re able to pray your way through it,” Moore said.
Employ the sacraments
Another suggestion is to assess from a spiritual point of view those things that can be changed.
Mara Calderon, Ph.D., who provides counseling through the office of social ministry, said people should examine what is affecting their lives in a negative manner and driving them from God. Then they should commit to changing it — not just for Lent, but for good.
She advised turning to the sacraments, especially confession and communion, that enhance spiritual growth.
“If you have Christ in your life, you will have the necessary strength to achieve changes, to meet goals,” Calderon said.