On Ash Wednesday this year, Archbishop Hebda visited our parish and school and presided over the school Mass. During his homily, he asked the school children to give examples of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. One boy suggested that you could fast from lights, “like, with an oil lamp or something.”
Archbishop chuckled and said he had never thought of that before. But I have.
Years ago, I ran across an article by Catholic convert, blogger, and speaker Jennifer Fulwiler entitled “8 Reasons to Turn Out the Lights During Lent.” Her experience captured my imagination, and I pitched it to my own family and those in faith formation at the time as “Firelight Fridays.”
The premise is simple—no electrical lights or screens of any kind after sundown on Fridays during Lent. The results were profound: we found ourselves congregating as a family around the candlelit kitchen table or living room, playing board games, listening to music, or just talking and laughing together as a family. It a couple hours, we would begin to feel snoozy; eventually we would, by common consensus, snuff the candles and go to bed early, sleep soundly, and rise refreshed on Saturday morning.
My friend Jeremy and I met with our ninth-grade D-group last week to talk about Lent. The turnout was light that night, and with Ash Wednesday just a few days away, I thought I’d share some of what we discussed in hopes that others might benefit. Here are five tips for building spiritual strength this Lent:
- Prepare Yourself. If you haven’t already, spend some quiet time in prayer. Ask the Lord what He wants for you this Lent. If we don’t take time to prepare, we often default to the same old things we are comfortable with or we have struggled to keep in the past. Ask Him specifically about each of the three Lenten disciplines—prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—and listen for His reply in the movements of your heart. How does He want you to grow in prayer? What good thing does He want you to give up for the next several weeks? How is He asking you to love your neighbor this year?
- Challenge Yourself. When you ask God what He wants from you, be prepared for an answer that might push you a bit. The Lord wants us to grow in holiness, but He does not challenge us beyond our abilities. I remember the teens in our Michigan youth group saying, “I could never give up such-and such!” and immediately seeking something else to sacrifice. If the Lord challenges you to do something difficult, lean into it—ask Him how to go about it, rather than steering the conversation to a more comfortable conclusion.
- Pace Yourself. Don’t be afraid to start small. When we lean into a challenge and talk with God about it, He helps us come up with small ways to build our spiritual strength. For example, if the Lord calls you to step away from your smartphone, and you’re not sure you can do that for all of Lent, maybe pick one day a week to be device-free—the Lord’s Day, perhaps, or Friday. On the flip side, sometimes we enter Lent with big ideas about the sacrifices we are ready to endure, but unless we’ve been practicing small sacrifices throughout the rest of the year, we may not be ready. Self-control takes practice, but even small sacrifices made with love are pleasing to God.
- Push Yourself. If you start small this Lent and feel called to do more, answer that call! My bride, Jodi, often adds to her Lenten commitments each week, building spiritual strength and momentum as she gets closer to Easter. It’s a great way to push yourself, grow in holiness, and learn your limitations.
- Be Gentle With Yourself. If you are challenging or pushing yourself as Lent goes on, there’s a good chance you’ll slip up or fall down—and that’s okay. I have found myself at both ends of the Lenten spectrum: either throwing up my hands and giving up entirely when I’m not perfect or trying to do too much and white-knuckling it through Lent while those around me suffer my ill temper and frustration. If you’re struggling, don’t be afraid to start again, always in prayer. Growth is the goal, not instant perfection.
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, which is this Wednesday, March 2. Mass times are 7:45 AM (school Mass; open to all), 5:00 PM, and 7:00 PM—and don’t forget to fast and abstain from meat that day. Lenten guidelines are online at usccb.org/prayer-worship/liturgical-year/lent. Have a blessed Lent!
This post appeared as a column in the Sunday, February 27, 2022, issue of the St. Michael Catholic Church bulletin.
This post ran as a column in the Sunday, April 11, bulletin for St. Michael Catholic Church.
A friend frequently reminds me to “keep my armor polished.” By this he means if I stumble into a significant sin—or even if it’s just been a while, and the daily imperfections have smudged and tarnished the sheen on my soul—don’t wait; get to Confession.
I was pressed for time in the run-up to Holy Week. I wasn’t struggling with anything grave or intentional, and with my schedule packed and my energy ebbing, something had to give. So I postponed Confession.
Then, as usual, the fog descended.
I don’t know about you, but even the accumulation of venial sins obscures my spiritual sight. I think less clearly, feel more anxious, see challenges in a worse light, and feel temptations more keenly. On Monday of Holy Week, I sat down to examine my conscience and six weeks of debris tumbled from my heart and onto the paper. Suddenly the weight was apparent, so that even the long lines at the penance service could not deter me unburdening myself.
When my turn came at last, I stepped past the screen to look Father in the eye. I was surprised not to recognize the priest: a stocky man with a fringe of clipped hair around a bald dome, and calm but serious eyes. He began without greeting: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit…”
Yesterday I got my first look at our parish’s new monthly newsletter, DISCIPLE, which should go into the mail tomorrow. It looks great, and I am truly excited to share it with you.
It also took less than two minutes to find two small but obvious errors in the final printed version: a typo and a small oversight in layout.
Those two small blunders nearly derailed me from enjoying a good day yesterday. I kept churning it over and over in my mind: How can I review something so many times, and still let two mistakes slip through? Especially mistakes that are so easy to see after the fact? How many people will notice? What will they think?
But the more important question occurred to me this morning: Why I am so upset and impatient with myself over two honest oversights, but always ready to excuse and forget my countless actual sins?
Who else remembers the candy commercial that seeks to answer the age-old question, “How many licks does it take to get to the Toostie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop?”
The old owl manages just three licks before crunching the candy with his beak and swallowing it hole. “Three,” he answers with authority—even though, in his impatience, he has come to the wrong conclusion.