A Student’s Guide to Lent

Fr. Terry Ehrman, C.S.C., offers advice for students

With the season of Lent steadily progressing alongside a busy semester, students may find it difficult to continue staying focused on resolutions and preparations for Easter. The Rover spoke with Associate Professional Specialist of Theology and Rover advisor Father Terrence Ehrman, C.S.C.N, who shared his insights on the importance of Lent and its practices. As we persist in our Lenten endeavors, he reminds us that Lent is ultimately a time for conversion and turning our hearts towards God and neighbor.

The Irish Rover: What is the purpose/goal of Lent?

Father Terry: Lent is the springtime of the Church to enter more fully into the Paschal Mystery of our Lord’s dying and rising. It is a time of conversion to prepare for the celebration of Easter and to renew one’s baptismal identity and mission where we live out the two great commandments of love: to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Forty days is a biblical time for self-emptying and turning away from sin and turning to God. Forty days and nights Noah and his family took refuge on the ark as the rain fell and the flood cleansed the world of sin. Forty days and nights Moses was in the presence of God on Mount Sinai before he received the Law and the Ten Commandments. Forty years the people of Israel wandered in the desert, led by God and fed with manna, the bread of heaven. Forty days and nights Jesus fasted in the desert before his Temptation. Forty days is directly connected to prayer, holiness, the law of love, and the Sacraments [especially Baptism (flood), Eucharist (manna), Reconciliation].

How do the practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving fit into the purpose of Lent?

Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are all ways that we turn away from self-absorption and the temptations of the world (power, wealth, pleasure) to a life of love and mercy. They are all forms of conversion to a life directed to God the Father who sees all in secret and to our neighbors.

Prayer is at the heart of it all, for it is our relationship of love with God. Lovers of God should have better relationships with one another. Fasting is a spiritual discipline by which we govern ourselves so that we can better see our neighbor. Filled with the Holy Spirit we bear His nine-fold fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We learn to govern our passions. We learn to direct our will to what is truly good, God himself.

With every hunger pang, we call upon God’s assistance, knowing that we do not live on bread alone but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God. If the temptation of sin is to deny our creatureliness and to be like god without God, in fasting, we fundamentally recognize that we are creatures. We are mortal and will die without food. When the fast ends, we are filled with gratitude and delight in the gift of food. Fasting also draws us into communion with our brothers and sisters who lack food and suffer hunger daily in their lives. How do we govern our relationships with the rest of the human family? Jesus told his disciples concerning the hungry crowd to “given them something to eat.” Directly tied to this is almsgiving, for it is an act of mercy and of justice. Misericordia, translated as mercy, is the greatest virtue related to our neighbor. We see the suffering of another with a “miserable heart” and seek to supply their needs with our generosity. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are a threefold act by which we make an offering of our lives to God expressed through our love of neighbor.

Now that we are a couple of weeks into Lent, what are ways that we can refocus and continue to make Lent fruitful?

Constantly return to the two great commandments. Contemplate and love God. Love your neighbor in concrete acts. When we pray, do we have the wonder of Moses at the burning bush that was afire but not consumed? God is. God is not another thing in the world, just bigger and stronger. God is no “thing” at all. God is and God is Love. I once passed by a woman and man approaching each other on the quad. They obviously knew each other, for the smile on her face was joyfully radiant. I asked myself, “Is that how I go to meet God in prayer?”  Do I encounter another human being and actively try to see Christ or to see how that person suffers? Refocus on the Cross. Pray before a crucifix. Ponder Christ’s love poured out for us. Pray the Stations of the Cross. Read Scripture. Fast. Give alms.

What are the biggest misconceptions that you think people, particularly students, have about Lent?

One misconception may be an individualistic approach to Lent. I have my penance(s) that I have chosen, and Lent becomes a self-focused contest to make it the forty days without yielding. Lent is not a contest that results in a self-congratulatory “I did it” because I successfully avoided eating sweets for 40 days. Related to this, another misconception and mis-living may be an externalized Lent. Lent is about conversion. It is about conforming oneself to Christ, emptying oneself of the self so that Christ lives in me. Also, lately, I have heard students and even priests talking about “giving up” something sinful for Lent. Lent is not about “giving up” sinful activities. We should never sin. We deny ourselves a good as a penitential act that joins us to God and to our neighbor.  

Do you have any suggestions on how to make Lent a retreat that not only prepares us for Easter, but also spiritually nourishes us for the entire year and leads to an overall change in attitude and lifestyle?

Learn to love the Eucharist. It is the Sacrament of Love that unites us together as one in Christ. Jesus Christ died for us and rose from the dead and left us a memorial. The Risen Lord is really present in the Eucharist. Learn to offer yourself with Him, who offered His life for us, to the Father in the Holy Spirit. Learn to offer and consecrate the world to God. In the Eucharist, we find our true identity in Christ. Through the power and love of the Spirit, we become one body, one spirit in Christ. Partaking of the Eucharist, we enter into communion with the Trinity and with the Church. Formed by and in the Eucharist, we praise, glorify, and love God in a pure offering of ourselves and go forth in love to serve our neighbor.

Katherine Smith is a sophomore studying Theology and living in Breen-Phillips Hall. Because she is fasting from ice cream this Lent, she eagerly awaits the time when she can once again enjoy one of her favorite pastimes: sharing Ben and Jerry’s ice cream with friends while sitting in a tree overlooking St. Mary’s lake. Contact Katherine at ksmith64@nd.edu

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