Updated: Feb 29
Lent is warfare. It is a time of battle for all Christian's between themselves and the three principle enemies: the world, the flesh, and the devil. We arm ourselves for this battle with prayer, penance, and fasting—as we follow Christ into the desert and spend forty days of combat with Him. So, to make this Lent our best one yet, let's take this season of Septuagesima (the traditional liturgical season before Lent) to prepare ourselves to wage what can feel like a long, arduous war. Here are a few ideas, both for individuals and for families.
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Not sold on the idea that Lent is warfare, or lacking some motivation? Let's start with this passage from Dom Gueranger:
[L]et us now learn, from the liturgy, in what light the Church views her children during these forty days. She considers them as an immense army, fighting day and night against their spiritual enemies. We remember how, on Ash Wednesday, she calls Lent a Christian warfare. In order that we may have that newness of life, which will make us worthy to sing once more our "Alleluia", we must conquer our three enemies: the devil, the flesh, and the world. We are fellow combatants with our Jesus, for He, too, submits to the triple temptation, suggested to Him by satan in person. Therefore, we must have on our armour, and watch unceasingly.
Now that we know Lent is a battle, we cannot walk into Ash Wednesday unprepared. We have got to come in with a battle plan ready to go—sitting in the pew on Ash Wednesday wondering "What should I give up for Lent this year?" simply will not cut it. The Church has given us an entire season—Septuagesima—to prepare for Lent. Let's use it.
The following is a series of steps you can take with either yourself or your family to form your battle plan. Ask yourself (or your family) each question, take some time to think and pray about it, and write down your plan. We recommend having a more simple family plan and then a separate, individual plan.
Step 1: What is my predominant defect?
A good place to start is with your predominant defect. Once you know what your predominant defect is, you can make your Lent hyper-focused on battling this defect. Oftentimes, when people destroy their primary defect, they find that several others are destroyed with it that were subtlety connected. If you don't know what your primary defect is (also referred to as a predominant fault), Septuagesima is the time to find out. Consider praying a novena to Our Lady of Sorrows, to your guardian angel, or to the Holy Ghost to help you find it.
Let's say your predominant defect is pride. Then you would focus your Lent on the opposite virtue, humility. Choose mortifications that are particularly humiliating or that are done in total secret (this is a situation where you would not want to announce to the family that you will be sleeping on the floor for Lent) and add prayers and spiritual reading that are focused on humility. It would work the same for any other defect: focus on practicing the opposite virtue and resisting temptations to that fault, or do whatever mortifications you choose with the intention of overcoming it. Remain with Our Lady always, and ask for her guidance in planning your Lent.
Step 2: What will my prayer schedule be?
Lent is the time to add prayer to your daily or weekly schedule. Evaluate how much you are praying now, and go from there. Keep in mind that the moralists teach that 15 minutes of daily prayer is the minimum to meet the obligations of justice (anything less is grave matter), and charity requires more. If you're not meeting these, now is definitely the time to start (you might find our post on the basics of growing in the spiritual life helpful). However, a vague "pray more", even if it's for a set time, like fifteen minutes, is often not going to cut it. Try to make it specific. Here is a helpful checklist—consider adding the items on here that you are not currently doing:
Three Hail Marys to prevent mortal sin (morning & night)
Daily Rosary (as a family, if applicable)
Evening examination of conscience
Daily mental prayer
Daily spiritual reading
Attending Mass during the week
If you are already doing these—that's awesome! Consider adding more for Lent. It could be a number of things: increasing your time of mental prayer or spiritual reading, either from 15 minutes to 30 minutes or adding another 15 minutes to a separate time of day; praying a second or third mystery of the rosary; committing to go to daily Mass or to visit the Blessed Sacrament a certain number of days per week; adding the morning and evening Angelus to your routine; etc. If you are looking for some Lenten-specific prayers you could add, especially ones that would work for the family, here are some traditional examples:
The 7 Penitential Psalms (Psalms 6, 31, 37, 50, 101, 129, and 142)—anything from praying all of these each day in Lent to doing a different one each of the seven Fridays
The Stations of the Cross (traditionally done on Fridays)
The Prayer before a Crucifix (this prayer is typically partially indulgenced, but a plenary indulgence can be gained under the usual conditions by saying it in front of an image of Christ crucified on a Friday during Lent)
As far as the sacraments go, it is tradition to go to Confession at least once during Lent (trying to go more often could be another part of your prayer regime!). One thing that I did last Lent that I couldn't recommend enough is to make a general confession, where you confess all of your sins from your whole life (obviously, you will tell the priest this is what you are doing, and he will walk you through what to do and what level of specificity he needs). If you have done this before, St. Frances de Sales recommends doing it once every five years.
Another aspect of prayer is spiritual reading. To really make Lent a sort of spiritual retreat, consider adding a new book to your daily regime (if money is tight, consider giving up something and putting the money towards the book, or choosing one you can read online for free). For Mental Prayer, I highly recommend the book The School of Jesus Crucified by Fr. Ignatius of the Side of Jesus. It is perfect for Lent, as it contains meditations on the Passion each day. (You might remember I mentioned it in this post on Mass with Little Ones). If you want more spiritual reading, I always recommend Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Frances de Sales. It is the perfect starting point for lay people aspiring to sainthood. If you've already read it, consider one of the books on unity with God, like Ascent of Mount Carmel by St. John of the Cross, or the Way of Perfection by St. Teresa of Avila. Something like Preparation for Death by St. Alphonsus Ligouri would also be timely.
And finally, if you are not currently keeping Sunday very holy, Lent is a great time to start and lay out specific rules—of course no unnecessary servile labor or commerce, but also adding prayers and family readings to the day to make it special. Our family really likes to read from The Church's Year by Rev. Fr. Leonard Goffine on Sundays and Holy Days. For other ideas, check out these two posts on making Sunday holy, here and here.
Step 3: What will my mortification(s) be?
Again, you will want these to deal with your predominant fault where possible. You could decide on something individually, and then have your family decide on something to all do together. With little ones, you can help them do things like sacrifice beads, or giving up TV or sweets. You could tie it into charitable works, like drawing names and whosever name you draw you have to serve in one way per day of Lent, to reveal yourself on Easter. For yourself or older children, you can consider more rigorous penances, like cold showers, sleeping on the floor, giving up all media, etc. One thing to keep in mind, if you are adding something, have something good in mind with which to replace it. For example, if you watch a lot of TV (we recommend reading this post) and decide to give it up for Lent, know ahead of time what you will do with this extra time—maybe some of the extra prayers or spiritual reading you laid out, extra time with family, deep cleaning your house, a weekly visit to the nursing home, anything. What we don't want to happen is to give up TV only to spend that time scrolling on social media, or to give up Pepsi only to get hooked on Diet Coke. You get the idea.
The really efficient mortifications are those that involve you giving up an innocent pleasure to fill the time with a work of charity, or you giving up a food or something you regularly purchase and use the money for a specific almsgiving. This is especially helpful for children to see what good they can do with giving up time or pleasures.
In general, it's a good season to get the unpleasant things done around the house—as I mentioned before, do baseboards or other deep cleanings, clean out your pantry and fridge, clean out closets and toy baskets, choosing some things you like to give to charity, etc. Again, be specific about not only what you are going to do, but when you are going to do it—maybe give up thirty minutes each Saturday towards a couple of hard or unpleasant tasks.
(If you need more ideas, you might like my series on Mortifications in Motherhood.)
Step 4: How will I fast?
First, how all Catholics are obliged to fast:
Abstain from meat all Fridays
Abstain & fast (two small meals that don't equal a whole meal + one regular meal, no snacks in between) on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday
Since this is admittedly not a lot of fasting, consider adopting the traditional requirements for Lent:
Fasting and total abstinence on Ash Wednesday, all Fridays, and all Saturdays
Fasting and partial abstinence (meat only for the main meal) Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays (except Ash Wednesday), and Thursdays
Observing the Lenten Ember days
Of course, you can also give up more food-related items on your mortifications list (e.g., one year Pater gave up all seasonings and condiments, eating only bland food), which is a good idea if you struggle with a detachment to food (or any sensual pleasures) or if gluttony is your predominant fault.
Hopefully you have enough ideas to get started and make this the best Lent ever. We'd love to hear more of your ideas in the comments!