Showing posts with label Pre-Lent. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Pre-Lent. Show all posts

Monday, March 4, 2019

7 Ways to Prepare for Lent during the Septuagesima Season

Traditionally, the third Sunday before Lent started a period of preparation for the Lenten season, called the Septuagesima season. The current, post-Vatican II calendar of the Catholic Church no longer recognizes this pre-Lenten period, but there is nothing to stop rank-and-file Catholics from observing it as a private devotion in order to gain a greater sense of focus in time for the start of Lent.

The three Sundays before Lent were traditionally called Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima Sundays, respectively, from the Latin words for 70th, 60th, and 50th. I will not go into details of the history of this naming convention here, but I will provide some links to further reading at the end. Suffice it to say that in the past the pre-Lenten period took its name from the first of these Sundays, Septuagesima.

So what should we do differently during these three pre-Lenten weeks? Let us explore seven ways that we can prepare for Lent during the Septuagesima season:

1. Self-examination: A large part of our Lenten discipline is the quest to improve in our character. Our repeated individual choices add up to form our habits. The aggregate of our habits forms of our character. Thus, if we want to change something about our character, we need to uproot at least one undesirable habit and create a new, life-giving one.

Lent gives us a period of six and a half weeks in which to accomplish this transformation, which is just enough time to change a habit, with focus and discipline. The preparation period of the Septuagesima season gives us an opportunity for self-examination, to discern which part of ourselves needs transformation the most. Many differed methods of self-examination have been developed over the years. Here, I will discuss three.

Do an examination of conscience every day during your prayer time. An examination of conscience is a review of our behavior, looking at different categories, to assess in what ways we have fallen short morally. Many forms of examination of conscience are available online. I will link here to one offered by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops:

A Brief Examination of Conscience

Another exercise you can do during the Septuagesima season is to reflect each day during your prayer time on one area of your life that you would like to improve upon. Make sure to consciously name an area for improvement each day. If you keep coming back to some of the same things, that gives you a good indication of where you should start making changes during Lent.

A more elaborate exercise involves concentric circles. The circles represent the human being. We might say that, while not everyone is a believer, everyone is a worshiper - everyone worships something, if not God, then someone or something other than God. We worship that which is in the center of our being. The exercise helps us to determine what is really in our center, what are the things that are further out from our center.

For the Septuagesima season, do the concentric circles in three stages. Print or draw two sets of circles for each week. The first week, take one set of circles and write in them what you discern to be in the center of your being at this stage of your life, putting them in the very center of the image. Then move from the center, writing down things further out in each circle. Some things that are not at all a part of your life you could put outside of the circles altogether. Next, take another set of circles and do the same exercise, but this time focus on what you would like to see in the center of your life and what you would like to see further out. The exercise will highlight areas of your life where you are falling short and where you could be working on improvements during Lent.

The second week of the Septuagesima season, take another set of concentric circles and do the same sort of exercise, but focusing on how you spend your money, putting the things you spend most money on in the center, and other things further out, according to how much money you spend on them. Next, do the same exercise, but this time focus on how you would like to spend your money, putting the things you would like to spend most on in the center, and the things you would like to spend less on further out.

Lastly, during the third week of the Septuagesima season, which is a shorter week, focus on time. Once again, start with a set of concentric circles and write in the center what you spend most of your time with. Next, write in the things you spend less time with, moving further and further from the center. Finally, do the same exercise, but focus on how you would like to spend your time, putting what you would like to spend most of your time with in the center, and the rest further and further out.

The idea behind all of these exercises is that self-awareness is the beginning of any meaningful transformation. We cannot work on fixing a problem in our lives until we acknowledge that it exists. Using the Septuagesima season to reflect on our areas of brokenness will help us to have a clear idea of where we need to focus once Lent begins.

2. Wean Yourself: An important part of the Lenten observance, is giving something up for the duration of Lent, such as a favorite snack or drink or activity. By giving something up, we develop a greater sense of discipline over our actions and our body. Also, giving something up can highlight just how dependent we are on creature comforts throughout the day. As we feel the sense of lack and emptiness left in us by not having our favorite treat or not watching our favorite show, we can use those moments to invite God more fully into our lives. The deprivation can help us refocus, so that we seek our comfort in God, rather than in our usual creature comforts.

Equally importantly, we can offer up the suffering caused by our self-denial for the well-being of others. An important principle of Catholic spirituality is that suffering accepted with good grace has a great deal of spiritual value, which we can offer for another person, who will receive graces through our gift of the spiritual fruit of our suffering. In offering our suffering for the benefit of others, we are imitating Christ himself, who offered the spiritual fruits of the ultimate sacrifice, his death upon the Cross, for the salvation of humanity. In fact, we might say, that offering up our suffering for others is the most Christ-like thing we can do.

At the same time, as we embark on a form of Lenten self-denial, we should be careful that we don't become angry, grumpy, or generally less functional as a result of our Lenten discipline. For example, if giving up coffee makes you unbearable to be around, you are defeating the purpose of your sacrifice. But this is where the period of the Septuagesima season can be especially helpful. If you know that giving something up cold turkey at the beginning of Lent would create problems, you can use the two and a half weeks of the Septuagesima season to wean yourself from that source of comfort or pleasure gradually. Going back to the coffee example, few regular coffee drinkers can give up coffee overnight without some serious withdrawal symptoms. But if you reduce your coffee intake gradually over the Septuagesima season, by Ash Wednesday you will be more ready to deal with the deprivation.

3. Celebrate: Our ancestors observed Lent much more strictly than we do. The regulations for fasting and for abstinence from meat were much more demanding. In times past, Catholics would engage in some form of fasting almost every day of Lent and also maintained an essentially vegan diet during the season. That is a far cry from today's regulations, which mandate abstinence from meat (but not all animal products) on the Fridays of Lent and Ash Wednesday, and fasting on just Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, with fasting being defined as one full meal, two smaller meals that add up to one meal, and no snacking in between – which is still eating better than much of the rest of the world on a good day.

Given the severity of their Lenten discipline, our Catholic ancestors liked to engage in some merrymaking before the Lenten season would start. They would stage costume parties and parades and would indulge in some fine foods. They had their last hurrah before the long season of self-denial would start. In fact, the word carnival, comes from a Latin word that literally means "farewell to meat." Some areas, like New Orleans, still cherish elaborate pre-Lenten celebrations.

The Church has always approved of merrymaking, as long as it is wholesome and in moderation. While the secularized pre-Lenten celebrations today tend to be over-the-top and overly self-indulgent, Catholics should feel free to have some good-natured fun before Lent. Throw a costume party. Indulge in some fine foods, like tasty meat dishes. Have a good time with family and friends. If you invite non-Catholic family or friends to your gathering, you can mention that such celebrations are traditionally done in anticipation of Lent and you can weave in some discussion of the meaning of the season of Lent.

Just bear a few things in mind as you party. Don't indulge in ways that would require regret and repentance later. If you are weaning yourself off of something, don't sabotage your own efforts in the course of your merrymaking. Also, remember that the celebrations during the the Septuagesima season would historically corresponded in degree to the severity of the Lenten discipline in which people would engage. So if you throw a good party, make sure you truly engage in some corresponding sense of self-denial during Lent.

4. Go to Confession: Catholics are required by Canon Law to go to Confession at least once a year if they are conscious of a mortal sin. Of course, it's good to go to Confession much more often. At least once a month is a good practice, especially on the first Saturday of the month, in order to be able to participate in the Five First Saturdays devotion.

A lot of Catholics go to Confession twice a year, during Advent and Lent. Lent is definitely a good time to go to Confession. But I would recommend doing so already before Lent starts. In fact, the last three days before Lent have historically been known as "Shrovetide" in English, from the word "shrive," an older English word meaning Confession. As the name Shrovetide suggests, traditionally Catholics would go to Confession in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday. By doing so, you can start with a clean spiritual slate at the beginning of Lent and can focus on uprooting the sinful habits you had just confessed, replacing them with spiritually life-giving practices.

5. Make Your Home Decor More Stark: During Lent, decorations inside Catholic churches are kept to a bare minimum to signify the sense of self-denial and penitence characteristic of the season. Do the same at home. Remove some of your usual decorations until Easter. As the Easter season begins, bring them back, with additional Easter decorations.

6. Bury the Alleluia: During Lent, we do not use the word "alleluia" in the Catholic Church. In fact, in the pre-Vatican II liturgy, the use of alleluia was already discontinued starting with Septuagesima Sunday. Alleluia is a word of celebration and joy going back to biblical times. By depriving ourselves of this word during Lent, we highlight the sense of penitence and self-denial during the season. Then, when the alleluia returns at Easter, our celebration of the Resurrection is all the more joyful.

One old custom in the Catholic Church is to write the word "alleluia" on a scroll or nice piece of paper, then place it in a box and bury it as a way of saying good-bye to the word before the penitential season begins. The box would then be dug up and opened at Easter.

If you have a place where you can bury such a box, do so on Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. If you don't have an area where you can bury something, you could place the box on a shelf, indicating that the "alleluia" has been put away until Easter Sunday arrives.

7. Celebrate Fat Thursday and Fat Tuesday: As Lent approaches, Catholics traditionally indulge in some foods that they will go without during the penitential season. Two specific days of such feasting are Fat Thursday, which is the last Thursday before Ash Wednesday, and Fat Tuesday, which is the day before Ash Wednesday. On Fat Tuesday specifically there was a custom of using up the remaining animal fats, which would not be consumed again until Easter. Many Catholics would make pancakes on Fat Tuesday, since pancakes were an easy way to use up all the animal fats.

I hope you found the above suggestions helpful. Let me know if have other suggestions for preparing during the Septuagesima season. Wishing you a blessed, spiritually enriching Lenten season!


Further Reading:

What is Septuagesima?

What Are Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima Sundays?

How to pregame Lent: Septuagesima, Carnival, and Shrovetide

Fat Thursday: Poland’s Tastiest Tradition

15 Indulgent Recipes for a Festive Fat Tuesday

39 Recipes to Splurge on for Fat Tuesday


Photo Credit: Ozette Loop on Olympic Peninsula by Zoltan Abraham (c) 2018.