Lent is just around the corner, which means a season of fasting and penance is upon us.
If you grew up outside of Tradition, Lent in your average Novus Ordo parish or Diocesan setting was nothing to write home about. The idea that you would actually do something difficult or that would cause any real suffering was not even considered. Sadly, Lent in most average parishes has become a time to do as little as possible while pretending we are doing something that pleases God.
So, what shall we do to make this Lent penitential so that it resembles the Lents of our ancestors?
Ought we to ‘fast from being negative’ like Father Bob suggested at the interfaith service?
Perhaps we can ‘give up chocolate’ like our Catholic-in-name-only schoolteachers used to tell us.
One of my favourite suggestions I once heard was along the lines of; “don’t think of Lent as a time to give something up, but instead as a time to take something on!”
We were told that instead of doing outdated things like fasting from meat and calories, we could instead help old ladies cross the street, or volunteer at a homeless shelter, or try and build deeper friendships.
Now, by all means it is laudable to do all those things. Help as many elderly women as possible crossroads, or help the homeless, and make better relationships – these are all wonderful ways to live out the corporal works of mercy, but they are not necessarily penances or mortifications.
Giving up chocolate is not hard, and fasting from being negative is not a thing. Lent is a time for suffering, pain, and a growth in virtue while we await the Death and Resurrection of Our Lord.
Prepare yourself to be hungry, to be tired, to be cold and to be sore – Lent is not something to be handled with kid gloves.
What Was Trad Lent like?
Before I offer a list of practical disciplines that can be adopted as Lenten practices, we should take a look at what old Lents were like, and I should explain why I am not simply telling everyone to just ‘do a traditional Lent.’
Well in the first place, I am not telling anyone what to do – I don’t like being told what to do myself.
In addition, the old Lent was very hard, and most of us would fail if we tried it without serious discipline and experience with fasting.
Lenten disciplines were not perfectly uniform in the past, but in essence all ancient Lents consisted of some version of this: no meat, no dairy, sometimes no oil, and usually a meal or two was skipped, or a fast was required until a time later in the day.
Dr. Taylor Marshall does a good job explaining the ins and outs of Lenten history, and explains the differences between the disciplines in the East and West, if you desire a more in-depth explanation.
For most of us, including myself, to give up meat (including eggs), and dairy, and not to eat until 3 pm would be very difficult, and we would probably fail. We are not as rugged as our ancestors by any stretch of the imagination – our lives are too comfortable – so we are ill equipped to tackle Lent like them without preparation.
It is as if we do not have a certain muscle development like they did, so we cannot attempt the same number of push-ups; doing so will lead to injury and failure.
If you are an average person, like I am, then adding disciplines one at a time, or in unique combinations will help you eventually arrive at a place where you can reach standards approaching our ancestors.
So, what can we do?
1. Fasting from Food
Fasting means to eat little or no food over a given time. If you follow a traditional calendar you know that when it is a day of fasting, this of course does not mean you cannot eat anything at all. In addition, abstinence is different from fasting – on a day of abstinence with no fast, you could eat a normal amount of food, but without animal products; contrariwise, you could fast without abstaining.
Ultimately the point of fasting is to significantly reduce calorie input, which makes things harder physically as you have less energy, at least at the beginning. Serious ‘fasters’ swear that making fasting a habit helps clear their mind and regulate their weight. This is true, but the shock of Lenten fasting is more like a kick in the pants that depletes your energy stores.
Again, unless you are seriously hardened in penitential disciplines, I would recommend taking on a singular discipline regarding fasting and focus on accomplishing your goal one Lent at a time – adding as you become more experienced.
Try one of the three following options:
- No eating between meals and no sweets – this includes sugary drinks. For many this will bring down caloric consumption by as much as one third, maybe more depending on eating habits.
- Partial abstinence and partial fasting each day. In essence, this means skipping a meal and only eating meat at one meal. It would also entail no snacking. This is harder than it sounds, especially if you are not used to it.
- Adopt a vegetarian/pescatarian diet for Lent. This means no meat or meat products at all, but without the fasting stipulations. This is not easy. There is a reason why athletes and weightlifters are rarely vegetarians – the lack of protein and iron takes away from your strength.
2. Fasting from Technology
Now, before you think this sounds like Pastor Bob’s ‘fast from being negative,’ stop and think just how much technology you use, and how much pleasure it brings you.
I got rid of my smart phone for this very reason; I was on it way too much.
Constant iPhone usage, whatever the app may be, takes away from your quiet of mind to an alarming degree, which makes prayer and meditation much more difficult.
A technological fast is relative to your situation, as your job may require tech in some way, but it has to be strict.
If you are on your phone for work all day, then when the day is over, you turn it off and throw it in a drawer. If you don’t need a smart phone, but just have one for fun, I suggest picking up an old flip-phone and figuring out how to live like it is 2005 again – you might like how it feels!
Your sleep habits, reading habits, and even prayer habits will be ameliorated by doing this.
3. Cold Showers and Baths
It is a simple fact that a warm shower is one of the greatest comforts on earth. If you take away a great comfort and replace it with something uncomfortable, you therefore cause yourself discomfort.
Cold showers are not fun at first, but you do eventually get used to them. This does not mean you like them, but they are tolerable.
There are numerous health benefits and psychological benefits to cold therapy as well, which is a bonus.
Moreover, for men who struggle with the solitary vice and an addiction to evil images (“pornography”), there is certain exhilarating feeling that comes after plunging yourself into a cold tub or shower. It has been found that this is effective when men are trying to battle an urge or temptation.
You could easily add some cold mortification to your Lenten disciplines.
4. Rigorous Activity
At the risk of sounding like Father Bob who tells his parish to ‘not give something up but instead take something on,’ I will suggest adding an activity for Lent. Now, unlike Father Bob, I am not going to suggest something that takes almost no effort at all.
Our ancestors were more prepared for rigorous fasting because they were used to rigorous physical activity. Basically, they did hard things with their bodies all the time, so when it came to do other hard bodily things, they were more prepared.
Even a king had to ride horses or walk long distances, deal with the elements, etc.
The average person would walk miles and miles each week, maybe each day. He would spend time doing difficult labour. Women had to make bread by hand, for example, which is no easy task if you are used to kitchen appliances. From dawn till dusk the average Catholic used to expend significant energy and calories just living life.
Most of us do no such thing.
We sit in traffic, sit at desks, perhaps stand in one spot, and so on.
It only makes sense that we would up our levels of exertion in order to develop more self-mastery, which can only help with Lenten disciplinary practices.
It may be that you enjoy weightlifting, or running, or hiking or playing sports. Whatever you can do – do more of it and do it harder.
Lifting weights 3 days a week is better than nothing, but if you are sedentary for most of the week, then three hours of activity is not going to accomplish much.
Shovel your snow by hand, use a push mower, walk instead of driving if you can, etc. Be more physical, work up an appetite, and spend less time slouched over or in your car.
5. Spiritual Resolution
In the past, Lent was also a time of heightened liturgical activity. If you follow an Office for daily prayer, you will notice changes, for example.
If we are to exert ourselves more in our physical life, then we must buttress our resolve with more prayer.
If you are not praying the Rosary every day, please, start immediately.
One of my favourite priests, Father Isaac Mary Relyea, explains very clearly why we must pray the Rosary every day:
— Kennedy Hall holds unacceptable views (@kennedyhall) February 1, 2021
In addition to the Rosary, I recommend praying a version of the Office.
Personally, I enjoy praying the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary. There are a variety of options people can choose from, and I am no expert in which one people should choose. Praying an Office is a way of praying with the Church as she has always prayed, and it gives a liturgical character to your day. Morning and Evening prayers (Prime and Compline or Lauds and Vespers) take between 5-15 minutes each.
Overall, there is no reason why we cannot increase our penances and mortifications this Lent, and there are a variety of ways to do so. Take this as an opportunity to do something difficult and to do it for God.
Kennedy Hall is a contributing editor for OnePeterFive. He is the author Terror of Demons: Reclaiming Traditional Catholic Masculinity and Lockdown with the Devil, a novel about 2020 published by Our Lady of Victory Press. He is also a writer at Catholic Family News and LifeSiteNews. He is married with five children and lives in Ontario, Canada. You can find his work at kennedyhall.ca.