Soon it will be Ash Wednesday – it’s hard to believe that Lent is here already! In order to derive the maximum spiritual benefit out of this season of preparation, we need a firm intention to live it fruitfully. But we also need to be smart about it. Here are a few tricks of the trade:

First, begin with the end in mind; that is, remember why we prepare! The historical events of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus were symbolized by the People of Israel wandering forty years in the desert and by Jesus’ own forty days of prayer and fasting in the desert. We can surely spend a little time in a “desert” of fasting, prayer, and good works to prepare our souls to enter into the Paschal Mystery at the end of our forty-day pilgrimage. Acts of self-renunciation are not ends in themselves; they are means to the end of becoming more spiritual men and women.

Second, stay simple; that is, don’t load yourself down with too many spiritual exercises or intentions that may discourage you if you happen to run too fast out into the desert. While I am all for heroism in religious practices, I am also realistic about human willpower. This is why the Church gives us very minimal “penitential” practices in Lent: required fasting is only on two days (Ash Wednesday and Good Friday; guaranteed, no one will starve!), abstinence from meat is only on Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent (a modest inconvenience for any active person), and we are required to do our “Easter duty” (Communion at Eastertime and sacramental confession as needed before that) as a minimum. Each person may practice penances beyond this, but make sure you are diligent about the very basics that the Church requires, for obedience is the most fundamental virtue of religion.

Finally, go for high spiritual impact. In other words, identify and practice faithfully just one truly magnificent goal for your personal conversion this Lent. I say conversion and not “personal improvement.” I don’t want anyone to interpret the call to spiritual discipline as a chance to lose weight or quit smoking. What Lent demands of us is an honest look into our vicious, slothful, and petty nature; we are then obliged to challenge our worst self with the full prophetic force of the Gospel. A well-intentioned person who stacks up a dozen goals for personal change but accomplishes few or none of them is not a better person at the end of Lent. He is more scattered, less disciplined and guilty of multiplying activities without changing his heart. In contrast, a person who addresses his habit of petty backbiting with a Lenten campaign of generosity toward those he finds disagreeable is the one who receives a blessing from the Lord because he acts like John the Baptist who “laid the axe to the root” of sin. Any mature person will know that a single, firm and effective intention to convert one’s heart is worth more than a thousand acts of superficial piety.

This Lenten season, focus on the goal of Easter, remain simple and obedient, and go for true conversion of heart. Those who resolve to walk through Lent with these intentions will truly prepare their souls for the great feast of Easter after a humble forty-day journey.