What Are You Going to Do Instead?

February 25, 2020

I had several requests to repeat my Lenten message from years past. OK, here it is:

Often the Lenten season is boiled down to doing less of something – try to stop eating between meals, or drinking caffeine, or gossiping, or watching so much television. Or maybe we focus on doing more of something – exercise more, spend more time with our families, or make an attempt to smile more. All of these are noble gestures, but I suspect ulterior motives in many cases. It’s similar to the young boy who gives up spinach for Lent. It’s stuff we’ve been meaning to do anyway, right? After all, not eating between meals and committing to more exercise is just a weight loss program, isn’t it?

In 2010, I made the decision to fast during Holy Week. I planned an all-out, no food at all, water-only, five-day fast. I planned to begin at noon on Tuesday and end at noon on Easter Sunday. I did my homework. I researched how fasting would affect me physiologically and mentally. I learned how to prepare my body to handle the rigors of an extended fast. I knew that I was going to be spending that week at St. Meinrad’s Holy Week retreat, so I would not have to battle many of the food temptations of everyday life. I was ready.

I arrived at St. Meinrad and took a long walk before the retreat began. I sat down on a bench and engaged in a conversation with one of the monks. He asked what brought me to St. Meinrad. I shared that I was going to be attending a retreat. I also mentioned that I would be attempting to fast. He asked me why I was going to do that. I thought about it. I answered that it was an act of self-discipline that would make me stronger and that it was a Lenten act of penance. He nodded and asked, “What are you going to do instead?”


If you are not going to replace eating with something positive and unselfish, that’s not fasting,” he said. “That’s just food deprivation.”

That was a wrinkle in my plan. My fast was really focused on what it would do for me. It should have been focused on what it would do to me. I adjusted my plan. Meal times were spent in prayer in the chapel, or saying the rosary at the grotto, or visiting the graves of the many deceased monks, or journaling on ways to better serve others. I spent my time of fasting to ask for forgiveness, give thanks and offer up my plans for improvement. I was able to complete my extended fast. But it was much more than an act of self-discipline and penance. It was a powerful spiritual renewal and offered a blueprint for being a better person.

Giving up caffeine for Lent? How about donating the money you would normally spend on coffee each day to charity? Going to stop gossiping? That is great – how about also buying a box of cards and writing a note to a different person each day, telling that person why he or she is special? Watching less television is going to free up some time — time to read scripture? to visit an elderly neighbor? to start a prayer group? Spending more time with family is a great Lenten goal. What can you do together? A Saturday morning at the St. Vincent de Paul warehouse? Time at the soup kitchen? What a wonderful Lenten lesson the children would learn.

You probably get the idea.

The ashes we receive on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday tell the world that we are sinners. The forty days of Lent allow us to recognize that sin, and repent in such a way as to transform how we live our lives. We look for ways to grow closer to Jesus Christ. And we rise with Him on Easter Sunday – still sinners, still not perfect, but renewed and focused on a better way.

Have a blessed Lenten season!


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