At the first Theology at the Pub event of the new year, Fr Michael Buck, chaplain at the Melbourne Campus of Australian Catholic University (ACU), reflected on the swiftly approaching season of Lent and how we might engage more fruitfully with it.

From the outset, Fr Michael admitted that when it comes to Lent, ‘I’m a struggler.’ Not only does he struggle with the more intense focus on penance and mortification, but one of the temptations can be to focus on comparisons.

‘It’s hard to avoid comparing myself with others who seem to do this much more easily,’ he said. ‘The focus becomes on me not being good enough, not doing enough … My focus is taken onto myself, or onto them, and away from Christ and preparation for Easter.’

There are some other temptations we face when preparing for Lent, however. For some of us, he said, preparation ‘is characterised by the question, “What are you giving up for Lent this year?” It’s the question [we] were asked in primary school; it’s the question [we’ve] continued to ask ever since, and never gone any further.’

Another temptation is to go much harder than we have done previously. ‘Lent, the 40 days, comes from the 40 days our Lord spent in the desert. It’s supposed to be a time of desert-like simplicity. Fasting is supposed to be about having and doing and consuming less. But sometimes we can fall into the trap of making Lent about doing more and more and more.’

‘I sometimes wonder, by the time Easter comes around, are [we] happier on account of the resurrection or simply relieved at the end of [our] Lenten discipline? The risk here is that the practices and disciplines of Lent get in the way of preparation for the Passover mystery.’

The focus becomes on me not being good enough, not doing enough.

In fact, when we go harder and inevitably fail, ‘it actually teaches us the lesson that we need the salvation that comes from Christ alone, that we could never have done this by ourselves. It took the Lord’s sacrifice on the cross to save us from sin,’ he said.

Nevertheless, Lent is meant to be a harder season than usual. We are meant to experience Jesus’ own struggle in the desert.

‘In life, we’re not always going to like everything which is good for us. Lent is about spiritual maturity, among other things,’ Fr Michael explained. ‘Being an adult means doing things we don’t like or enjoy but recognise nevertheless are important.’

He compared the disciplines of Lent to ‘training the muscle’ of our impulses so that we can ‘more readily choose Christ and reject sin’.

How, then, might we engage with Lent more fruitfully? When it comes to understanding Lent, Fr Michael pointed to the Vatican II document Sacrosanctum Concilium, which described the ‘twofold character of Lent’ as follows:

… primarily by recalling or preparing for baptism and by penance, it disposes the faithful, who more diligently hear the word of God and devote themselves to prayer, to celebrate the paschal mystery (§109, emphasis added).

One of the things we might forget about Lent, which Vatican II outlined, is that this penitential season has a purpose: its purpose is ‘recalling and preparing for Baptism, and most of all, it’s about preparing for Easter,’ Fr Michael explained.

‘The goal is to prepare for Easter. It’s not about forgetting about Easter but preparing for it.’

Fr Michael shared how one Lent, following this realisation, he committed himself to renewing his baptismal promises every day. ‘It really helped me appreciate the gift of Baptism but also to contemplate sin in a new light … It makes you realise how we have solemnly sworn to reject Satan, the father of lies, and to reject the glamour of evil.’

Fr Michael shared some other ideas for how people might practically keep the Lenten season as a season of preparation, of simplifying our lifestyles to make room for God.

‘First of all, prayer. It’s clear that Lent is supposed to be a time of greater and more intense prayer, so we have to think both quantity and quality. I should be praying more during Lent than I do at other times of the year, but there should be something different about the quality of my prayer, the way that I’m praying,’ he said.

He suggested that, for the season of Lent, people could pray for the conversion of someone they know and love—a very practical prayer that ties into baptism.

When it comes to fasting, Fr Michael suggested that, especially for young people, a fast from technology and social media where possible could be spiritually beneficial.

‘Interestingly, when we fast, when we abstain, when we say no to something, it’s “reversing” the first sin, or the sin of our first parents,’ he explained. ‘If you think about the sin in the Garden of Eden: they were told not to do something, and they did it anyway. When we set something upon ourselves not to do, and are able to keep that, we’re “reversing” that.’

Finally, with almsgiving, Fr Michael proposed: ‘Almsgiving is all about works of charity … There’s nothing more precious that any of us can do than volunteer our time … How about we challenge ourselves to give time to welcome new people into the Church or spread the faith?’

It’s not about forgetting about Easter but preparing for it.

Above all, he suggested, ‘It’s more helpful to think about whether our Lent is heartfelt and authentic than whether it’s successful.’

Lent should not be engaged with childishly, but nor should it be engaged with proudly, with a sense of achieving something for ourselves.

‘We need to open our hearts to the grace of salvation which is offered to us only by the death and resurrection of Christ. The joy of Christ’s Easter victory is our goal and our strength in every trial, including the great 40-day-long trial of Lent.’