Just Tell Me What To Do Already!

Long time readers will know that typically every Lent I try to challenge myself with some extreme diet or mortification, then spend several weeks writing about how I’m such a lousy Catholic because I can’t do this crazy, self imposed fast/diet/penance. This year, as Lent approached, I got antsy. I didn’t know what I wanted to undertake, and frankly, I didn’t feel like researching other crazy diets, studying the description of every new devotional that was being released, or clicking on every blog post suggesting 2,492,209,103 CATHOLIC STUFFS YOU MIGHT CONSIDER FOR LENT #LITURGICALEXPLOSION #ALLTHEHOLINESS.

Not because I don’t have time for Lent, or God, or engaging in more prayers, fasting and almsgiving, I just wanted the Church to tell me, in black and white, “Here is what you’re doing for Lent. Period. Now go on about your business and stop trying to reinvent the wheel.”

Amy Welborn has been sharing some fantastic posts leading up to Lent, and when I got to this one (a bit after it was published) it summarized my feelings nicely. (Emphasis hers.)

The best-intentioned post-Conciliar reformers (in contrast to those who simply didn’t believe any of the stuff anymore) seemed to me to be operating from the assumption that the  Church’s life and practice as it had developed over time functioned as an obstacle to deeply authentic faith, and that what was needed was a loosening of all this so that Catholics would develop a more adult faith, rooted in free response rather than adherence to structures.

Well, you know how it is. You know how it is when, on one day out of a million you have a blank slate in front of you? No rigid walls hemming you in? No kids to pick up, you don’t have to work, no one’s throwing obligations and tasks at you? And you think, Wow…a whole day free. I’m going to get so much  done! 

And then it’s the end of the day, and you realize that maybe what you had thought were restrictions were really guides and maybe not so bad because you look back on your Day Without Walls and you wonder…wait, how many cat videos did I watch today? Do I even want to know?

Yeah. That.

I realized, that even though I’m a pretty well educated Catholic who takes her faith seriously, I don’t WANT to come up with my own Lenten practices this year. I WANT very specific guidance and instruction. I appreciate that looser regulations mean I have the freedom to choose the “just right extra special super perfect penance designed especially for me in a matching tote bag”, but ultimatly, all that freedom (this year especially) felt like a burden. Rather than simply entering into one of the oldest liturgical seasons in the Church, I’m stressing out about all the special and creative ways I could be starving and punishing myself. Or worse, I remembered that in previous years when I felt overwhelmed with decision fatigue, I gave myself very loose restrictions so I was free to be as tough or as lenient on myself as the day demanded, and more often than not, I forgot what I was doing, found more excuses, and didn’t do much of anything. (#catvideos) I knew I didn’t want to fall into the same rut this year.

So I looked to the past to see what the Church taught about fasting and Lent before the current “We trust you to do your best! Just don’t eat meat on Good Friday and Ash Wednesday!” regulations were put in place. I found this entry on ‘Fasting and Abstinence’ in my ‘Baltimore Book of Prayers’, originally published in 1889 following the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore. (I picked up a 1996 reprint at a library book sale years ago.)

Our Holy Mother, the Catholic Church, does not leave her children without guidance, and to their own devices, in this important matter; she tells them not only when, but how to fast and abstain and the rules she has established are those inspired by her heavenly wisdom, and shaped and fashioned by centuries of practical experience. Every Catholic is bound to keep these mild and gentle rules first of all before any other form of bodily mortification can be worthily undertaken.

This Lent I’m following the recommendations from this book for fasting and abstinence, with very minor tweaks. That means fasting everyday of Lent except Sundays; specifically, one full meal a day and two smaller snacks, no food between meals, plus no meat Wednesday and Friday. Plus, I’m making time to open my missal to the daily Mass readings and walk to Adoration weekly. (And a few other private additions.) Very simple, and such a relief when I finally wrote it all down on a small sticky note and slapped it on the wall in front of my desk.

Every year I asked Tony what he was planning for Lent. Sometimes he joined me on my weird adventures, but usually he said, “I’m just doing the traditional fast, reading [spiritual book], and getting back in the habit of using my breviary.” And I would catch myself worrying about him- that because he wasn’t trying to outdo his previous years’ efforts, or undertake some bold new penance, or at the very least, get creative with his Lenten practice, he might not be doing Lent right. By simply following the traditional guidelines, I worried Tony was missing out on a crucial part of Lent. I believed that you needed to struggle to find just the right practice or penance; that it had to be a difficult process.

I see now that I was equating all my Lenten prep busywork with holiness and devotion. I believed it was a sign of how serious I took the season. Had I consulted a priest, I might have seen how flawed my motivation was some years. He might have pointed out that my overthinking was a hinderance and not a sign of discernment. I would’ve seen how I was using Lent to try to achieve personal goals, rather than enter a season of penance. And perhaps choosing something unique and challenging was actually a sign a pride.

So this year, I’m humbly submitting myself to what generations of Catholics did before me without questioning whether it’s special enough or will feel like enough. It’s a relief when I have so much else to worry about, that I don’t need to worry about “planning” Lent this year. (Although, I might try tackling just a few new recipes. )

Now it’s your turn! Write it down then link it up below! Be sure to include a link back to this post so your readers can find the rest of the Quick Takes. I look forward to reading your posts!


  1. What a supportive Church we belong to, giving us more than ample guidance to be able to follow its rules and practices. I am guilty of over-planning across the liturgical calendar. Maybe the Lord just wants me to be like Mary, sit near Him, and listen to His words, rather than be like Martha fussing all over the place. Thank you for the very insightful post; I should read it again :).

  2. Yes! I learned for the first time, in 40 years of being Catholic, that the church used to require fasting for all of Lent (the one big meal, two smaller meals, no meat until the big meal) everyday except Sundays. So that’s what I’m trying to do too. Such a simple but HARD practice and hopefully a fruitful one. Good luckmy friend!

    1. Is there anything so humbling as a simple “Yes, Sir?” (Although Ma’am would probably be more appropriate, since it’s Holy Mother Church).

      Or anything that’s so freeing and relieving?

      On an entirely different topic, are you going to do a pixie cut review? (Which looked fantastic on IG, by the way.) Help out the 40 something moms who really want to give their hair the old chop chop but are skeered! ?

  3. I think I would have a harder time with those fasting rules because I would have to keep trying to figure out what constitutes as two small meals versus a regular sized meal, lol! Since becoming Catholic, I have been pregnant or nursing during Lent so it’s easier/better for me to just abstain from something completely. This year it’s diet soda and all grains since that’s best for pregnancy with gestational diabetes. GD makes things feel Lenten enough :/

  4. This is a wise and fruitful move, I think. We are Orthodox Christians, and our experience of fasting seasons is that of a corporate lived experience. While I sometimes feel hemmed in by it, and want to just “do my own thing” there is a lot of wisdom in submitting to the ancient lived Tradition of the Church, and putting my will aside (part of the point, really!) There is some room for individual economia of the practices, but by and large, we don’t reinvent the wheel every season, and I find relief in that too.

    Every fasting season is different, too, and I’m usually curious to see what will emerge from the discipline and practice, because I am different every time I approach them. Some years I can do a lot, and some years not very much, but there is always the knowledge that my fellow church-goers are participating in the same rituals, at the same time, attending the same services, the same struggles and rhythms of it.

    Good struggle for the Fast!

  5. Gosh Kelly this is beautiful, and really in line with what the Holy Spirit has been saying to me. I read Amy’s post and had the same reaction! A sort of, aha, I’ve been doing it backwards. I’m doing something very similar for Lent, but without any social media. It’s such a relief to not be trying to save myself this year, you know?

  6. Thanks for this honest post Kelly, and for not casting judgement on different Lenten practices.
    One person’s chocolate is another persons hair shirt. (Too melodramatic?!) There have been so many, “Lent, You’re Doing It Wrong.” posts in the Catholic Blogosphere in the past few years that I generally avoid reading them.

    It is nice to know what the guidelines for Lent used to be. Even if you choose a different practice, it provides some context for penance.

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