Lent is around the corner (March 9) and the blogosphere is filling up with recommended devotions, readings, and sacrifices. Rather than offering a specific reading list or a specific prayer plan, I would like to propose an approach to the Lenten triad of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. I am a firm believer in the Pizza Dough Spirituality approach. Just as pizza dough cannot be stretched across the pan too quickly, growth in our spiritual life must be undertaken in small increments. Therefore, when looking at your Lenten practices, carefully assess what you are doing and where you can realistically expect to improve. I recommend a three-step process.
First, decide one thing that you can do with a pretty sure chance of success. For example, perhaps you are perpetually late for Mass. How about this Lent offering the effort required to get you and your family in the pew every Sunday ( or Saturday evening) on time? Think about what changes you need to make to your Saturday evening and Sunday morning schedule to accomplish this goal. Do you need to set out clothing the night before? Do you need to forgo coffee and the paper in the morning so you can focus on getting children ready? Do you need to write the check for the collection plate the night before so that you do not waste time on Sunday morning looking for a pen and the offertory envelope?
Next think of a slightly bigger step that is probably doable, but a little bit more of a stretch. Once you are getting to Mass on time, can you get there just a few minutes earlier so that you can be mentally prepared for the Mass? What are you going to do during this time? This is a good time to read the Sunday readings so that when you hear them proclaimed in Mass you can listen more intently. Maybe you can offer a decade of the Rosary for a special intention.
Now consider something that you would really like to do, but are pretty sure it is beyond your spiritual capability. For example, you have always wanted to extend your participation to parish prayer other than Sunday Mass? If you have barely been making it to Sunday Mass, it is unrealistic to think that you will suddenly become a daily communicant. Yet, once you have mastered getting to Sunday Mass early enough to prayerfully prepare for the Mass, you might be ready to branch out a little bit. Can you make it to daily Mass once during Lent? Can you make it once per week? Can you attend a Friday Stations of the Cross devotion? Can you attend a parish holy hour?
You do not need to declare all three steps at once. Throughout Lent assess where you are. Then think about where you can "stretch the pizza dough". Once the novelty of giving up chocolate wears off, there is often a staleness to such simplistic Lenten sacrifices. This gradual approach allows continual growth during Lent. It can be applied to all three types of Lenten observances: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Lent is not just about giving up something. It is not about shedding a few pounds so that we look better in our Easter dress. We die to the world so that we may live in Christ.