Since Lent is itself a time of preparation, the idea of preparing for Lent may strike you as odd; but, rather like the vigil of a feast enabling us to anticipate what is to come, a little planning beforehand will make our Lenten journey more fruitful. In the monastery we write a Lent Bill: a note addressed to our superior (or, in her case, another nun) detailing what we wish to give up and what we wish to take on by way of penance, and submitting it all to her judgement. So, if she thinks that some picayune sacrifice of sugar in tea or salt on eggs is going to make us crotchety, she will refuse and probably impose something much harder, without any feel-good factor in it!
The point of the Lent Bill is that it gives us an opportunity to think about our personal Lent, as distinct from our community observance. Each of us takes stock of her life and thinks about what needs to be addressed. For one, it may be a tendency to talk too much; for another, it may be a tendency to avoid engagement with people; a casualness may have crept into our lectio divina; or we may have noticed ourselves daydreaming or half-hearted or otherwise deficient in our service. The chances are that the same faults and weaknesses will appear year after year on our Lent Bills, because human nature does not change very much. What matters is the love and devotion with which we try to put right some of the negligences of other times.
If you do a quick internet search, you will find many sites offering advice about how to make your Lent more fruitful. Over the next few days, I shall be offering my own ha’pennorth. Today, may I give you just one pointer? The classical penances of Lent are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. For most people, that means taking on more prayer, giving up some food or drink and performing some act of charity or benevolence. These are all good, but do please bear in mind that merely giving something up (e.g. wine or television) shouldn’t result in a vacuum — money or time saved is meant to be spent on God and others; dieting is not fasting; and prayer is more than just saying prayers.
We can make our Lent so busy with different ‘practices’ that we ignore or even subvert its point. Lent is meant to open us to the mystery of God’s love and redemption. It is worth spending some time preparing for it; and one of the best of all ways is to reflect on your life and, if you belong to the Catholic tradition, make your confession and ask God’s help to see what you REALLY need to change.