Lent is a time of reckoning – a spiritual reckoning before God. In a sense, the Season of Lent is a sort of a trial run each year which prepares us for meeting our Maker and having to give an account for our life in the flesh. That’s a holy and salutary thing for us to do, and our Church provides us this immense grace-filled season for that reason.
That’s why it’s good to have a plan for it and to make a firm intention at the beginning not to waste this phenomenally rich season of grace. How will we derive maximum benefit from this season of preparation?
First, begin with the end in mind. Remember for what we prepare, or rather, for Whom. The biblical forty days’ journey reminds of Christ’s own forty days in the desert and prepares us for His Death and Resurrection at the end, the high holy days of the only week in the year we call “Holy”.
We can surely spend a little time in a “desert” of self-renunciation, fasting, and prayer to get our souls ready to enter into the Paschal Mystery at the end of Lent. Acts of self-denial are not ends in themselves; they are means to the end of becoming more spiritual men and women.
Second, stay simple. Namely, don’t load yourself down with too many spiritual exercises or intentions that may discourage you by running too quickly into the desert. I am all for heroism in religious practices, but we have to be humble about the power of the flesh to undermine our best efforts and also realistic about our limitations.
This is why the Church gives us minimal and, quite frankly, relatively easy penitential practices in Lent: required fasting is only on two days (Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.) These won’t kill anyone – guaranteed! Abstinence from meat is only on Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent (a modest inconvenience for any active person.) You can always go above and beyond these duties, of course, but first make sure you and your loved ones practice the minimal requirements diligently.
Finally, go for strong spiritual impact. This means that you should identify and practice faithfully just one really magnificent spiritual goal for your personal conversion this Lent. I say conversion and not “personal improvement” so that no one will interpret Lenten discipline as a chance to lose weight or quit smoking! We must go deeper than that.
What Lent demands of us is to look into our slothful and petty nature and challenge it with the full prophetic force of the Gospel. Jesus described John the Baptist as one who “took the Kingdom by storm.” This is what a focused spiritual goal means: identifying an area of your life that you have not surrendered to God – and taking it by storm.
Is there a primary vice you struggle with (no one is without one)? Time to root it out. Or, evaluate your practice of the theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity. Are you lacking in any one of these? Take it by storm this Lent! Or, look honestly at how you live the cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude. Go all-out to develop the virtue you need most. Have a plan.
A single, firm intention to convert your heart is worth more than a thousand acts of well-intentioned piety that bring no interior change.
Those who resolve to walk through Lent with these intentions will not waste Lent. In fact, they will reap the benefit of deep conformity to Christ when we finally arrive at the High Holy Days of our blessed Faith.