“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Rom 12:21)
The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes Lent as a season of penance and a time of intense moments of penitential practice (1438). “By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.” (CCC 540)
Lent is right around the corner. It is a time of preparation, perhaps more intense than other times of the year, as we look forward to Jesus’s Passion, death, and Resurrection. Besides bring a time of preparation, Lent, too, deserves some preparation and should not be entered into blithely.
So, how should we prepare for Lent? To begin with, we should reflect on what Lent is, what it means, and what we should get out of it. Lent is a forty-day period of penance, reflecting the forty days that Jesus spent in the desert prior to being tempted by the devil. We all suffer temptations from the devil who uses the material world and our concupiscence to distract us from our spiritual goal. The devil is always around, ready to tempt us and he isn’t always obvious. “Indeed, the safest road to Hell is the gradual one - the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” (C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters)
We need to strengthen our spiritual muscles. St. Paul cautions us, “For though we live in the world we are not carrying on a worldly war. For the weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy strongholds.” (2 Cor 10:3-4) We need to put on the armor of God. “For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness ...” (Eph 6:12)
Lent, then is a time to build our spiritual muscles to combat those evil powers. We do this by using the tactics Jesus taught us – prayer, fasting, practicing humility, and charity. During this time we want to concentrate on reflecting on our own lives, what has distracted us from God, and how to get back on track. As always, prayer is first and foremost. Jesus said, “... they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” (Lk 18:1) And St. Paul in his letter to Timothy said, “pray constantly.” Fasting helps to break our attraction and addiction to material things. The Church gives specific guidelines on fasting during Lent (Ash Wednesday and Good Friday) but fasting doesn’t always have to involve food, especially for those who may be excused due to age or health reasons. We can fast from other things. This is where the concept of “giving something up for Lent” comes in - fasting from some material enjoyment we have as an offering to God. While Christmas is looked on as a time for giving, Lent is also a period for exercising additional charity.
And, as always, we need to be humble, as Jesus humbled himself to become man. There are words the priest or deacon says at mass during the preparation of gifts that we should all consider, “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity” (emphasis added). And what is more humbling than to present ourselves to Jesus in confession, opening our hearts and souls to his unfathomable mercy? If you haven’t been to confession recently, please go during Lent, even if you are sure you haven’t committed a mortal sin. Frequent confession strengthens our spiritual lives. As the Catechism tells us, “... indeed the regular confession of our venial sins helps us form our conscience, fight against evil tendencies, let ourselves be healed by Christ and progress in life of the Spirit.” (1458)
There are multiple ways to improve our prayer lives. Some become more available during Lent, but we can always pray together at home or in small groups. When I was growing up there was a priest who went around the country preaching, “The family that prays together, stays together.” Do you pray as a family? If not, Lent is a perfect time to start. The rosary is always good for family prayer. “Love the Madonna and pray the rosary, for her Rosary is the weapon against the evils of the world today.” (St. Pio of Pietrelcina - Padre Pio) Pressed for time, try the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. Try going to at least one additional mass each week. You can try to add a daily mass to your schedule if your local parish can accommodate. Many churches do Stations of the Cross every Friday during Lent. Commit to going to Adoration during Lent and try to just visit the Jesus for an hour each week, even if it’s just him in the tabernacle. Bishop Sheen had a practice of making a holy hour with Jesus daily. If he couldn’t get to an open Church, he would find out where the tabernacle was and park as close as he could for an hour. Start attending one of the many prayer and study groups in your parish or, if they don’t have one consider starting one yourself. It only takes one or two others to get going.
There’s a lot of evil in the world today, even though there are many who don’t believe evil exists. We have been warned about evil throughout the bible. “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight!” (Is 5:20-21) Hell exists and Lent is a time to reinforce our ability to defend ourselves from evil and avoid “the pains of hell” (even though Pope Francis doesn’t like this part of Acts of Contrition).
There are lots of opportunities for Spiritual Growth. If you don’t have opportunities locally, you can always go to EWTN. Even if you don’t have cable or satellite, you can get EWTN On Demand as long as you have an internet connection. Through EWTN you can get daily mass, Stations of the Cross, Rosary recitations and the Chaplet of the Divine Mercy as well as many other programs that will help your spiritual growth. Lent is a perfect time to work on it. You might be surprised and find that it becomes a spiritual habit you continue even after Lent is over.