Catholicism: Day 18 – Lent, the Ultimate Self-Help Program?

My Catholic month overlaps with the first few weeks of Lent. As a result, I was able to participate in my first Ash Wednesday Mass yesterday.

I never really understood the whole Lent business before. Once a year I’d see people walking around with dirt on their forehead , mourning all the ice cream they’d have to give up.  It all seemed a bit silly to me.

But the more I learned about the practice, the more I learned about how smart the whole process is.

What is Lent?

I’m going to steal Wikipedia’s description here:

Lent is a solemn religious observance in the liturgical calendar of many Christian denominations that begins on Ash Wednesday and covers a period of approximately six weeks before Easter Day.

The traditional purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer through prayerpenancerepentance of sins, almsgivingatonement and self-denial. Its institutional purpose is heightened in the annual commemoration of Holy Week, marking the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, which recalls the tradition and events of the New Testament beginning on Friday of Sorrows, further climaxing on Jesus’ crucifixion on Good Friday, which ultimately culminates in the joyful celebration on Easter Sunday of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Here are some of the essential elements or “activities” of Lent.


Look at those awesome ashes on my forehead.
Look at those awesome ashes on my forehead.


While most people don’t fast for 40 days as Jesus did, Christians often give up a luxury or something they value during Lent.

Though this is a “penance” in some ways, I like to think of it as an opportunity to pay attention.

Let’s say you give up using your smartphone for purposes other than making phone calls. What do you feel like when you’re standing in a long line and can’t distract yourself? Anxiety? Why do you feel that way? Is there a reason you can’t be alone with your thoughts?

When you subtract unnecessary things from your life, you’re forced to notice the impact those things have on you. It’s the Church’s way of saying “hey, take a second to think about how you live your life.”

I’m giving up alcohol for Lent.

I’m not an alcoholic by any means, but I find it quite difficult to not drink in social situations when everyone else is drinking.

I went to a team happy hour yesterday and stuck to my diet coke. I really wanted to drink, but it gave me a chance to realize how difficult it is for me to be open and relaxed around others without drinking.

This is not a unique to me, of course. That’s why happy hours exist.

But isn’t it sad that we have to intoxicate ourselves to enjoy the companionship of others?

Prayer and Reflection

The Church describes prayer as communicating with God. For seculars like myself, this is incredibly difficult to understand. Is it like having an imaginary friend?

In a way…yes. It’s like having an imaginary friend.

But if you don’t believe in God, that imaginary friend is really just a manifestation of your own psyche. A fictional you that you can bounce ideas off of.

The Ignatian Spiritual Exercises I’ve been doing are prayers, and I’ve found it useful to think I’m speaking with God. It’s an opportunity for reflection about subjects I normally wouldn’t think about with a completely different mindset.

Through my prayers or reflections, I realized how guarded I am with others and how much I long for some sort of spiritual fulfillment or meaning. I also realized that I need to do more to help others, and focus less on myself.

I’ve had glimpses of these insights before, but they get lost in the distractions of everyday life.

Lent gives you a 40 day period to embrace prayer and reflection and to act on those insights.


Fasting and prayer are activities focused on the self, or the self in relation to God.  Almsgiving is about focusing on others, and specifically, others less fortunate than you.

Almsgiving is a way to exercise your compassion muscles. Instead of focusing on ways your life could be better, you focus on the ways you could make the lives of others better.

This is incredibly refreshing. Everyday I’m bombarded by cultural messages that say I deserve more. I deserve that new car or high paying job or luxury vacation. Of course I should have it all.

Thinking about all the things I don’t have is exhausting. How liberating would it be to focus on doing what I can for others?

Lent is a good excuse to give yourself a break and help others in the process.

The Institution of Lent

I discussed a few of the more interesting Lent activities, and you might have noticed that you could do any of those things at any time, Lent or no Lent.

Absolutely, and if you do so, more power to you.

But I know I haven’t.

The Church realized that most people need some structure and guidance in order to get them to fast, to pray, to be generous.

Weight Watchers realized this. That’s why their diet program is successful. They gather groups of people with similar goals and provide structure and support for their weight loss efforts. The diet part of their program is relatively straightforward (eat less and eat healthy).

So yes, you can do all those good things on your own, but you’re more likely to succeed if you do it with others as an institution.

The unifying theme or story of Jesus Christ also helps. It’s powerful if you believe the story, but it’s powerful even if you don’t, even if you interpret it as a metaphor. Here was this guy who preached compassion and mercy, who then voluntarily suffered for the salvation of mankind.

If we can be inspired by the stories of our successful contemporaries like Steve Jobs or Sheryl Sandberg, why is it so wrong to be inspired by the story of Jesus?

I’m not sure if there are any comparable Lent-like secular institutions, but if there aren’t, there isn’t any harm to faking being a Christian for few weeks. You might even start enjoying it.  I know I am.