A Guide For a Fruitful Lent
BY LORI HADACEK CHAPLIN
Years ago, I heard Catholic psychologist Ray Guarendi on his radio show, The Doctor Is In, encouraging listeners to do something substantial for Lent. His words reminded me that I had felt God nudging me to attend daily Mass. With Dr. Ray’s pep talk in my ear, I approached my husband, David, and asked him if he could help me to attend Mass during the week. He supported my efforts wholeheartedly, even though he’s not Catholic.
Daily Mass attendance didn’t stop when Lent was over. I could feel it feeding my soul and giving me the courage to say yes. It changed me in many ways. I went from a faithful lump in the pew on Sunday to a woman who is joyfully active in more than one ministry in my parish. The habit of attending daily Mass continues today — I feel anchorless without it.
Like Dr. Ray, I’d like to offer a challenge to commit to doing something for Lent that makes a better you. The three pillars of Lent are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Using the saints — and saints-in-the-making — as a guide, here are some suggestions for a fruitful Lent that will hopefully transform your life forever.
We live in a hectic world where it’s easy to skimp on prayer. St. Francis de Sales advises: “Every one of us needs a half an hour of prayer each day, except when we are busy — then we need an hour.”
Many forms of prayer exist in a Catholic’s tool kit, such as the Rosary and the Stations of the Cross. There is also contemplative prayer, in which a person directs their thoughts toward the things of God. For example, you might focus on the doctrine of the four last things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. The spiritual practice of contemplating death and what comes after fell out of habit, but it is making a comeback. Contrary to what you might think, this is not a depressing exercise but a freeing and life-changing one.
To get you started, I’ve included a brief meditation on death, judgment, heaven, and hell based on Fr. Wade Menezes’ book, The Four Last Things: A Catechetical Guide to Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell (EWTN Publishing, 2017), and Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble’s book, Memento Mori: Prayers on the Last Things (Pauline Books & Media, 2019). I highly recommend both books. I’ve also included mission suggestions because good intentions are limp without action.
A Spanish nun named St. María Maravillasde Jesus called death “no more than falling blindly into the arms of God.” To be ready to fall into Our Lord’s embrace, our souls must be in a state of grace — without a known mortal (grave) sin. Our culture has conditioned us to frown on contemplating our death because we don’t want to seem morbid. But if we don’t think of our inevitable end, how will we take honest stock of our lives?
St. Junípero Serra, priest and founder of nine of the California missions, offers: “Of all of the things of life, a happy death is our principal concern. For if we attain that, it matters little if we lose all the rest. But if we do not attain that, nothing else is of any value.”
MISSION: Have you examined your conscience lately? Make a commitment to go to confession twice during Lent and at least once a month afterward.
The soul faces two judgments; the first happens instantly after death. The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls our first private appearance before God the particular judgment (see CCC,1021–1022). The second judgment is called the general judgment — or last judgment — which will happen at the second coming of Christ and will be witnessed by the whole world (see CCC,1038–1041).
St. Thomas Aquinas warned: “Now, then is the time for mercy, while the time to come will be the time for justice only. For that reason, the present time is ours, but the future time will be God’s only.”
MISSION: Is there someone in your life who needs your forgiveness or an apology? Now is the time to heal relationships. Write a letter, make a call, or better yet, invite the person out for coffee.
Bl. Anne Catherine Emmerich saw visions of heaven, including radiant fruit and flowers, marvelous gardens, and beautiful houses.
But as it is written: “What eye has not seen,and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him,” this God has revealed to us through the Spirit. (1 Corinthians 2:9, 10)
MISSION: When I think of heaven, I can’t help but think of my parents and all of my loved ones who have died. Say a prayer each day of Lent for the holy souls in purgatory and ask God to give you and your loved ones the grace to join the Holy Family in paradise. In addition, have a Mass said for the person God has placed on your heart.
Hell is called a “pool of fire” (Revelation 20:15). In his Gospel, St. Luke says it’s a “place of torment” (Luke 16:28). Bl. James Alberione, founder of the Daughters of St. Paul, stressed:
Do we realize what sin is? Let us take a close look at hell. … Then we should turn to Christ and hear him say, “For what does it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, but suffer the loss of his own soul.” (See Matthew 16:26)
MISSION: Is there something that you are overly attached to, such a binge-watching favorite television programs, spending too much time on social media, excessively indulging in food or alcohol, gossiping, fighting with relatives, or other common temptations? Make a commitment to limit comforts and eliminate divisive behavior. Keep a journal to track your progress.
Prayer and fasting are closely intertwined. My pastor, Fr. Caleb Vogel of St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Nampa, Idaho, says that Catholics underestimate the value and spiritual power of fasting coupled with prayer.
“In recent years, we have focused a lot on ‘rather than giving something up, I’m going to do something good.’ There’s great value in doing good, and it is central to our Christian faith. Fasting and prayer, though, are what Lent is really calling from us,” Fr. Vogel says. “Fasting requires me to do something difficult that no one else is going to see. In addition, it also causes us to face our personal demons, our greed, and our inabilities to deny ourselves.”
Author of numerous books on purgatory, Susan Tassone has been fasting weekly on Wednesdays and Fridays since Ash Wednesday 2016. Her fast consists of having only crackers, tea, or watered-down cranberry juice. She has shared with me how fasting has helped her family and how it has aided her writing.
Tassone, whose latest book is called Jesus Speaks to Faustina and You: 365 Reflections (Sophia Institute Press, 2020), tells Catholic Digest, “Fasting is a means to conversion because it eliminates the excesses of our lives to make more room for God. Fasting frees us from the attachments of material things. Among other things, fasting strengthens and stabilizes us and helps us develop self-control, one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit.”
Tassone advises, “You can’t fast on fasting.” She recommends eating adequate and healthy meals on non-fasting days, so it’s easier to endure the fasting day. She says, “Fasting doesn’t get any easier, even though I have done it for a long time.” She also warns that effective fasting needs prayer; otherwise, it’s just dieting.
MISSION: Deny yourself something difficult to give up. Fr. Vogel recommends committing as a family to fast on bread and water one day a week. If medical reasons prohibit a strict fast, do a Good Friday-type fast once a week, or give up all beverages except for water. A social media blackout fast is yet another way to deny yourself. If the sacrifice is challenging for you, then you’re building spiritual muscle, and you’re on the right track!
We are all called to sacrifice financially for the good of our brothers and sisters in Christ. St. Francis of Assisi said, “You cannot all abandon your possessions, but at least you can change your attitude about them. All getting separates you from others; all giving unites you to others.”
Pope Francis addressed charity in his Angelus talk on July 21, 2013. “A prayer that does not lead you to practical action for your brother — the poor, the sick, those in need of help, a brother in difficulty — is a sterile and incomplete prayer,” he said.
In the Catholic edition of Your Money Counts by Howard Dayton and Jon and Evelyn Bean, the authors share that giving requires a proper attitude. We should remember that when we give “each gift is actually given to the Lord himself” and giving “directs our attention and hearts to Christ.”
MISSION: Do you know someone in your community that needs financial assistance? Maybe it’s a neighbor, your parish, a ministry, or a charity, such as Haiti180.com or CatholicWorldMission.org, that helps impoverished children and families. Another avenue is to volunteer time and talent to help the less fortunate. Remember that “whoever cares for the poor lends to the Lord, who will payback the sum in full” (Proverbs 19:17).
DID I SACRIFICE ENOUGH?
Fr. Vogel says you’ll know you’ve had a good Lent “when Easter is a relief and a consolation. When you can honestly say, ‘That was hard,’ you are a better Christian.”
Catholics ages 18-59 are required to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. On these fast days, a person is permitted to eat one full meal, as well as two smaller meals that together are not equal to a full meal. In addition, meat is prohibited for ages 14 and older on Fridays during Lent.