What should I do for Lent? Let’s start by slamming some really bad advice you’re likely to get: Instead of giving something up for Lent, do something extra!
No! Don’t. Let me tell you why.
To start with, the term “Lent” means exactly the opposite of “do something extra.” It means, “do less.” It comes from the Latin word, “lentare,” which means, “to stand-down, to back-off, to slow-down, or to stop.” Our English word “relent” derives from the same Latin term.
Americans need Lent most of all
The terrible advice to “do something extra” during Lent is a distinctly American bowl of pablum. We Americans never really feel like we’re doing something worthwhile unless we’re doing something, period. I think that’s why we’ve largely turned the Liturgy into something that often looks more like a neighborhood talent show than a timeless cultic ritual. We’ve substituted the phrase, “full and actual” participation (Sacrosanctum concilium §14) with “real and active” participation, and have come to think, as a result, that we’re not “doing liturgy” the way the Church calls us to unless we’ve got a job to do, ideally somewhere in the sanctuary.
Nobody on earth needs Lent more than we do in the United States.
We Americans struggle to grasp the idea that sometimes, the most worthwhile thing to do is nothing at all. Yet, in a very real way, Lent is about recalling that very truth. We can spend our whole lives doing and acting but lose sight of who we’re supposed to be. “It’s about the journey,” people will say, “not about the destination.” They’re wrong, and that’s why, sometimes, you need to stop and see where you are.
The Important Questions
How often do we meet someone new and ask, “What do you do?” That question—what the person does—takes the place of the question, “Who are you?” Sure, people find jumping right into the depths to be a little disconcerting, largely because it involves vulnerability and the possibility of a conflict we’d really rather avoid. But asking what a person does only gets us to the outside of a person. It doesn’t tell us what’s really important. Worse, still, it’s common for us not even to care about who the person is or what the person values or what the person believes, so long as the person does what we need.
We’re all about doing. We live and die to do. We go on vacation to do. We do something on our day off. We see friends and ask, “What would you like to do?” We resolve, at the New Year, to get a gym membership or a piece of exercise equipment and do even more. We need to “get active.”
Stop! Just stop doing. For the next forty days, resolve to do less not more.
What about traditional Lenten practices?
Does this mean you shouldn’t take up a Lenten practice, like spiritual reading or spiritual exercises, or going to Eucharistic adoration or Mass more frequently, or taking up the Rosary again?
No. I’m not saying that. I’m saying that you shouldn’t do something extra. You should make room for these practices by cutting other things out of your day and your week.
What all these practices have in common, in fact, is that they’re not really activities at all. They’re not about doing anything. Eucharistic adoration isn’t really something you do in the presence of Christ. It’s just being in the presence of Christ. It’s being-with and being-for Christ in that moment. In this way, it’s embodying the theological virtue of charity. It’s about the destination!
To the extent that any spiritual practice is an activity, it’s really an activity of being rather than of doing. Even at Mass, where we praise God and offer sacrifice, the primary agent is God himself. Our “actual participation” there consists, first of all, in our entering into that moment—our being present to God and surrendering to him.
And that’s the most important thing we can do this Lent. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are all for the sake of the nothing God wants from us. They’re to make God the center of our consciousness again. They’re about giving God the majority of our attention and interest, setting aside whatever we can that might compete with him.
My advice? Don’t do anything extra for Lent. Do less—much less—and let God do more. Let him speak to your uncluttered heart. “Set things down,” he says, “and experience that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).