Published February 23, 2023
I have been looking forward to the arrival of Lent. When I was a child, I used to dread the beginning of Lent. The discomfort and inconvenience of keeping up with whatever meager observances I had chosen for myself that year – giving up sweets or television or whatever – was just such a drag. When I was five or six, Ash Wednesday even fell on my birthday. Miserable.
As I got older, I came to realize just how nourishing and edifying the disciplines of Lent can be. As I told a friend recently, I have now reached the point where I actually look forward to Lent. It’s a built-in chance for a fresh spiritual start. It provides that extra shot of discipline and structure that does a body good.
Small comforts easily become attachments. And the Church, in her wisdom, calls us to penance and fasting, not merely as a way to strengthen our willpower, but to help free us from those attachments. Fasting, after all, is not merely about “going without” or even “making up” for our sins. It’s about freeing oneself from attachment to disordered or competing loves so that we can be free to love as we ought. And that freedom transforms our fasting and penance from a mere obligation into an opportunity to share in the suffering of Christ who is our hope.
Considered in this way, suffering is not just something to be borne but is tied to hope. Pope Benedict XVI wrote about the connection between suffering and hope in his encyclical Spe Salvi. He included there, almost as an afterthought, a reflection of “offering up” little hardships. He wasn’t writing specifically of Lenten practices, but his words surely apply:
There used to be a form of devotion—perhaps less practiced today but quite widespread not long ago—that included the idea of “offering up” the minor daily hardships that continually strike at us like irritating “jabs,” thereby giving them a meaning. . . .In this way, even the small inconveniences of daily life could acquire meaning and contribute to the economy of good and of human love. Maybe we should consider whether it might be judicious to revive this practice ourselves.
Lent is a chance – whether we look forward to it or not – to revive this practice ourselves. Of course, penance is only part of our Lenten practice. Almsgiving detaches us from money, which can be particularly sticky in the spiritual sense, and opens us to charity and care for others. Prayer, like almsgiving and penance, is not only for Lent. But finding additional time and ways to pray during Lent strengthens our devotion through the rest of the year.
When it comes to prayer, there are two Lenten practices that I have found especially helpful. Both have to do with Scripture. And while neither of these practices is particularly novel, each provides a way to pray with and reflect on the Word of God in ways that our ordinary life – or at least my ordinary life – doesn’t allow. Both practices require one to slow down, which in the frenetic pace of contemporary life is itself a much-needed form of penance.
The first practice is really quite simple: read the Gospels. I don’t mean read a passage from the Gospels now and then, or reflect on the Gospel reading from a given day’s liturgy (though this is obviously a very good thing, too.) I mean sit down and read each of the Gospels straight through from start to finish. Try, if you can find the time, to read each Gospel in a single sitting. Mark’s Gospel is the shortest, so maybe start there. Or you can just read them in order beginning with Matthew.
Most Catholics encounter Scripture in the Mass. But rarely do we read an entire Gospel as a whole. Reading the Gospels as a whole is a wonderful way to encounter them anew. It is an excellent way to notice new details. It helps one to notice subtle repetitions and allusions in the text. It allows one to appreciate the context of various passages, which allows comprehension of the whole, not just the parts.
The relative proximity, in time and place, of various parables and events, is normally lost in a more sporadic reading. And sitting for an hour or two with the Gospel provides a chance to be immersed in the Word of God in a way that we rarely afford ourselves. I have found it immensely helpful.
The second Lenten practice is this: copy the Scriptures. I mean literally get a pen and paper and copy the words of Scripture by hand. Write neatly and deliberately. Use pen, not pencil, because you’ll have to pay even closer attention to avoid indelible mistakes. The Psalms are a great place to start. Each psalm can usually be completed before your hand cramps up.
Copying Scripture by hand forces one to focus on each and every word. It slows us down, which is especially important for familiar passages that can easily be glanced over. You will notice occasions where the words are not quite what you remembered or expected. You will notice, again, repetitions and subtle changes in word choice, tone, and meaning.
Perhaps best of all, because you are writing the words, rather than reading them silently or hearing them read aloud, the words will stick. There is a reason memorization used to be taught, in part, by repetitive writing. Writing out the words of Scripture is a beautiful way to learn Scripture more intimately.
So as Lent begins, I have my copy of the Revised Standard Version and a favorite pen at the ready. I know all too well that it is easy to be enthusiastic at the outset, and that such enthusiasm can flag. Still, I’m determined. Yes, I’m looking forward to Lent. As it is every year, it’s just what I need.
Stephen P. White is a fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Mr. White’s work focuses on the application of Catholic social teaching to a broad spectrum of contemporary political and cultural issues. He is the author of Red, White, Blue, and Catholic (Liguori Publications, 2016).