Many give up sweets as a gesture of putting aside objectively good things associated with feasting to live the days of mourning in preparation for when they will feast again at Easter.
Some attempt to give up things they know they should give up for good, like smoking or swearing, but will either fail in the process, or successfully get through it – but at the cost of mortifying others due to their negative behavior as they were fasting, only to go right back to it on Easter.
Lent really needs to be a time get closer to Christ. This requires developing habits that will not only allow us to get closer to Christ during Lent, but throughout the rest of our lives.
To get closer to Christ requires “detachment” from those things that prevent the pursuit of a deeper personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Giving up sweets for Lent is a good universal gesture, as is the Church prescribed abstinence from meat on Fridays of Lent. These gestures help us recall what Christ has done for us because they are things we normally eat in life, and the voluntary prohibition makes us say “Ah ha! Jesus died to free me from sin.” Giving up normal good things helps prompt the mind to the memory of what Jesus has done.
But those kinds of gestures are detachments of the surface. Detachment from things or people that go deeper into our being and way of life that actually distract us from pursuing a closer friendship with Christ are to be considered at Lent. If watching movies with your free time and neglecting saying the daily rosary is a way of life for you, Lent is a time to develop the habit of saying the rosary. Perhaps you watch certain kinds of movies that inherently numb you to the things of the spiritual life, thus keeping you from being further attracted to Christ. Lent is a time to get rid of these kinds of movies.
When it comes to big things like giving up smoking, it can be too much to ask to go cold turkey. Better to gradually cut back so you have a managed detachment. At the same time, you pray for the strength to accomplish the goal and the courage to maintain it for life. You grow closer to Christ as your deliver, learning concretely that nothing is possible by our own effort, and without Christ you can do nothing good.
You detach AND step closer to Christ. That is the attitude of Lent.
The fasting that most people never even think about is the fasting that God Himself called His people to practice. It is authentic fasting that leads to blessing. This is illustrated beautifully in Isiah 58. The Lord says that the people seek and desire Him, but their fasting is done by carrying out their own pursuits, hanging their heads low, and sitting in sackcloth and ashes. “Is this what you call a fast?” the Lord asks.
He goes on to say that the fast He chooses is this:
Release those bound unjustly
Set free the oppressed
Share your bread with the hungry
Take in the homeless
Cloth the naked
Don’t turn your back on your own
Remove the accusing finger and malicious speech
Do this, and Lord says you will have light, your wounds will be healed, God will guide you, and always satisfy your thirst and give you strength. You will cry for help and the Lord will say “Here I am!”
Authentic fasting is the doing of good deeds, outlined completely in the Corporeal and Spiritual works of Mercy. It is a fast from selfish pursuits, and a reaching out to your fellow man and their needs. It is a fast from your bad habits such as pointing an accusing finger or talking maliciously of others.
Working at the soup kitchen during Lent is an excellent example of how you can live this kind of a fast. There are so many opportunities in your every day life to authentically fast. Any opportunity to help others is an authentic fasting.
When it comes to your love life, there is much that fasting can do. Develop a regular day of fasting every week or month that is specifically for the intention of your vocation. Perhaps every Wednesday you eat one meal and no snacking. With the reality of how difficult it is to find a solid, faithful, practicing Catholic in this day and age, prayer for a future spouse might not be enough. Incorporate fasting into your efforts.
There are so many ways to live authentic fasting in the dating process. Fast from things like being overly critical or sensitive, too demanding, and assuming the worst. Fast by efforts to be more positive, interested in what the other thinks or has to say, more supportive, and finding and focusing on the best in the person. I’m sure, through prayerful consideration, you can come up with lots of things.
The spiritual works of mercy are an important aspect of marriage, since the person you marry and the children of that marriage are those you will interact with daily and are most responsible for. Focus on developing habits of living these spiritual works of mercy this Lent. Not only will you grow in personal holiness and benefit the people in your life, but you will also become thoroughly prepared for your future marriage.