The Lent tradition began in the 3rd-century of the early church and is a 40-day season of preparation and repentance in anticipation of Jesus’ resurrection on Easter. Whether you are only beginning to explore the claims of Jesus, or have been a Christian for some time, Lent is a perfect season to allow God to shape your life around the cross and empty tomb of Christ in fresh ways.
Historically, Christians have used three broad categories of practices in this season: fasting, prayer, and generosity. If you’re like me, you forget to think about this until Lent has already started, so hopefully this helps us all.
If you think of these practices as external means and postures for shaping one’s soul and interior life, then fasting is a process of removing things to create a space, prayer is the way we fill those interior spaces, and then generosity is giving out of the overflow we trust is there.
To use another analogy, prayer is like the soul’s inhale, and love/generosity is its exhale; fasting or other ascetic practices are ways to increase our “lung capacity” or quicken our breath for a time from spiritual exertion in order to take in and give out more than we normally would.
“Giving something up for Lent” is maybe the primary thing people associate with the season. Fasting is not meant to be a way to restart a diet or even do a sort of “detox” from something your life. Instead, it highlights the unnecessary things we use and how strong our desire is for them.
But it’s also not just about thing thing itself. As we refrain from their use, we intentionally feel discomfort or unmet desire and use those moments to turn our minds to God. We are supposed to feel weaker than normal, as this brings some humility and awareness to our mortality and frailty.
If you’ve never given something up for Lent or this practice feels a little daunting, these common Lenten fasts might be a good place to start. It’s better to just do something rather than nothing:
- Social media
- Road rage
- Podcasts and/or news (or just politics altogether)
- A particular game or app,
- A favorite TV show
However, there is still a dimension to Lenten fasting those things don’t quite get at. Each is still technically a luxury–one can go without those things and–after a few days–experience very little discomfort. Another level of fasting, then, is to experience a fast in more basic, everyday aspects of life.
- Fast from all food but water on one or two days a week, or only eat what you need to survive.
- Make water your only beverage through the entire Lent season.
- Take short, cold showers or set your thermostat colder throughout Lent.
- Turn off all screens (or even all electronics–including artificial light) after a certain time in the evening.
- Exercise with extra intensity.
- Abstain from any purchases of material goods that are not absolutely necessary.
- Don’t add seasonings to your food, including salt–even while cooking.
- Give up music with words, or music entirely.
- Fast from cars during Lent (even Uber), and only walk or take public transit.
- Make Scripture the only text you take time to read–no news, books, social media, etc.
Those sound pretty intense, right? I’ve never done any of those, though a couple I hope to try this year. There are also some other, more creative fasts I have come across that may be worth your consideration as well.
- Give up your snooze button: make yourself get up with your alarm.
- If you listen to audiobooks or podcasts at a sped up rate, slow it down to 1x speed, or slower.
- Turn your phone screen black-and-white. Both Android and iPhones can do this easily.
- See how few apps you can use in a given day. Uninstall, hide, or disable as many apps as you can and don’t use them through Lent.
- Starve the quantified self. Don’t track your calories, sleep, location, or any of the other numerous metrics we apply to our lives and barely look at or use.
- Give up your late nights: no getting to bed after midnight.
- Only eat out with others, not by yourself.
- Give up unnecessarily defending yourself or criticizing others–even if you’re ultimately “right” (yes, this can be taken too far–and be wise, but it’s meant to combat our obsession with our own reputations)
- Fast from all media intake (TV, movies, music, books, podcasts, etc) that is not by minorities or some other marginalized group.
- Fast from all non-essential trash and waste. Only use re-usable things and try and get as close to zero-waste as possible.
- Don’t take your phone with you into the bathroom.
Prayer is most often characterized “talking with God”. However, there is a more implicit strand through the Scriptures and Christian history that invites us to see prayer as much bigger than verbal, discursive spiritual engagement.
Prayer can be a general posture in life, an awareness of God and a maintaining of connection with God’s Spirit in you. It can be the repeating of structured liturgical prayers, speaking short prayers over and over again, or most profoundly and deeply (as the mystics teach us) sitting in periods of deep and complete silence, with no actual mental content or words passing between you and God, just communing. Here are some ideas and tips for praying during Lent:
My church offers a Lent Prayerbook that will guide you in reflection, confession, and give you creative, embodied practices throughout the season.
Schedule your prayer. Determine the time, place, and even ambiance (the lighting, seating location, posture, smell, noise, etc.). Try and stick with it. If you miss some days, that’s fine. Just pick it up when you can.
Keep a journal. This affects a different part of your brain than reading, thinking, and spoken prayer, and is a small way to embody prayer. It is also something to which you can return in the future.
Sustained, regular periods of silence. This is hard, but worth it. Science says it takes about 12 continuous minutes before our brains experience the benefits of meditation, so aim for that. But don’t feel bad if you need to start with 5. Here’s a book that can help.
Doing things in a mindful, prayerful way. Pick a short prayer you can repeat mentally or under your breath as you do everyday activities—commuting, showering, changing diapers, doing dishes. The most common prayers Christians have used have been “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” or just the name Jesus. As you do this, see where God shows up: an emotion, an inspiration, or in a metaphor with what’s around you.
Surround yourself with things that facilitate this type of awareness:
- Pick a candle, essential oil, or incense that inspires reflection and slowing down (not, for instance, a bright, fruity scent).
- Watch media that keeps you in touch with your depths and brings your thoughts to God or the suffering of the world and your place in it (my favorite would be any film by Terrence Malick).
- Listen to Christian, classical, or sacred music: I’d suggest Mozart’s Requiem, Rachmaninov’s Vespers, Cool Hand Luke’s Of Man, Lent by The Brilliance, or even one of the two Lent Mixtapes I made years ago, though just search Spotify for “Lent” and you’ll find hundreds of other albums and playlists.
- Print out pieces of art that inspire reflection or turn your focus to Christ, the Cross, human suffering, or your own mortality.
Use outside guidance, both in text and audio. A difficulty in designated prayer time is that we sometimes just don’t know what to say. Trying to think of what to pray is hard, and silence is even harder. But Christians have always used the prayers and guidance of others to help with this, namely in three ways:
- Liturgy: I don’t mean the content of what’s prayed, but a basic, consistent structure that you fill in. It can be as simple as the ACTS method–Adoration, then Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication or this popular method of praying for an hour in 5-minute chunks. Google for more.
- Daily Offices: This is prayer that is almost entirely written out for you, like our Prayerbook. The Book of Common Prayer does this and you can easily use it at Mission St. Clare. Phyllis Tickle’s The Divine Hour’s series is also great. And there are audio resources! I use the app Hallow and the Divine Office podcast, though Pray As You Go is a really good and popular option–they even have Lent-specific “audio retreats”.
- Devotionals & Praying Scripture: Another technique is to read something and use it as a launching pad for prayer. Use a Psalm and go one verse at a time, praying with the themes or content of that verse, and then move to the next. You can also use one of many Lent devotionals out there. You read a reflection, quote, or piece of poetry and then pray based on what it inspires in you. I have particularly enjoyed Chuck DeGroat’s Falling Into Goodness and Malcolm Guite’s Word in the Wilderness.
Generosity is often experienced as the result and overflow that comes from the shaping of other practices and I know it’s hard to “do generosity” in a way that doesn’t at times feel rote, forced, less than we could do, or wrongly motivated.
But still, our embodiment matters. Even as we recognize or are implicitly aware of our mixed motives in certain actions, I think if we wait until we have the “correct” inner state before we move into these things, we’re likely never to do them.
So with that being said, here are some ideas for embodying generosity, even as we recognize there’s much work to be done in our hearts to free us from materialism, selfishness, and closed-heartedness.
These ideas are both ideas that communities or groups themselves can do, but they are also things that you can do that benefit your broader community and those that you don’t otherwise know that well.
- Find opportunities for service in your local congregation. This is a time when many religious organizations have different endeavors going on. My church has a weekly food ministry to those in homelessness, and leads a massive 75-church effort to give over 10,000 free meals to those in the region experiencing food insecurity.
- Connect with your neighborhood’s community development corporation and see what ways you and others might care for your area. There are often frequent volunteer activities, including tutoring and street cleaning.
- You could just clean up your block on your own whether it’s a scheduled event or not.
- Similarly, commit to going to your neighborhood association’s meetings and events through the course of Lent, and sharing this information with others.
- Commit to learning the name of and giving to every single panhandler that asks you for help. (This also means thinking ahead and always having cash on you).
- Similarly, I had friends years ago that every single meal they ate, they only ate half and gave the other half to someone they came across in need.
- This may feel unjust or unfair, but consider coming to work 15 minutes early and staying 15 minutes later to give your organization more of your time, effort, and work for no extra compensation. (By the way, sit with how this feels and maybe explore what your roadblock to this might mean?)
These next two categories bring the scope a little smaller, and think of your own more private actions and those in your relationships with those that know you.
- Each week donate money to a different organization. (But be wise. I did this in a very financially irresponsible way years ago and it took me a while to get out of the hole.)
- Have a “Lent of Yes”, where you say yes to any request made of you (within reason). If a coworker asks you to do a favor, if a friend asks for help moving, or if someone wants to do a different activity, then say yes without complaint.
- Every week (or day!) give away unnecessary items in your house and life. You can use traditional places like thrift stores or online communities like Buy Nothing to do so. (You can also make this a fasting practice by getting rid of a material possession every day, if you it’s not fit to give to others).
- Similarly, commit to not buying any material possession for the entirety of Lent. Try and end Lent with less stuff than you began it.
- In fact, you can fast from spending money unnecessarily on yourself entirely and only doing so when you can also (or only) spend it on others. Or, whenever you buy something, buy two to share.
- Extend a more generous spirit to yourself. Within reason, let yourself off the hook for things that often drag you into shame and self-criticism. Also take time in a journal, in prayer, or in therapy to identify things in you it your past which you might need to extend forgiveness to yourself for.
- Apologize for past wrongs you may have done to others (actually reach out to these people, unless doing so would cause harm). Also, extend forgiveness for others that have wronged you. Do both with no expectation of what the other person will offer in reply.
- If possible, take what you’re fasting from and give it to others. Fasting from coffee? Buy a box of coffee for your coworkers. Meat? Give a neighbor a roast. You get the idea.
- At a food or coffee spot, offer to pay for whatever the person behind you in line is getting.
- Think of those people in your life, past, or community that you know are lonely and do not receive a lot of attention from others. They may be awkward, mentally ill, poorly dispositioned, or of a lower economic status. Give your time and attention to them–and substantively so. No tokenism, but real intentional time and service.
- Only eat out when you can pay for someone else eating with you. Otherwise, don’t eat out alone and only cook at home.
- Babysit for a couple in your community (religious or otherwise) who you know have not had a night out together on their own for quite a while.
- Commit to affirming someone you know every day of Lent in specific, substantive ways.