Originally Lent was a period during which the catechumens (candidates for Christian initiation) prepared for their Baptism, which would take place at the Easter vigil. Before long, however, all Christians began observing Lent as the Church's official season of preparation for Easter. It was a forty-day period characterized by prayer, introspection, almsgiving, self-denial and the exercise of virtue.
Unfortunately, during the middle ages, as popular Christian spirituality began to emphasize the sufferings of Christ, the rich variety of Lenten practices was reduced to the single dimension of penitence: fasting, abstinence from meat, and “giving up” certain things. Even though recent scriptural theology and liturgical reforms have helped restore many of the forgotten aspects of Lent, many Christians still see the season almost entirely in terms of the narrower, single-dimensional view.
Benedict of Nursia on Lent
Saint Benedict's Rule for Monks, written in the Sixth Century, which still provides us Benedictines with wise guidance for living, has a lot to offer to Christian lay people as well. Benedict's perspective on Lent, then, dates from an era when the observance of Lent was still marked by a rich variety of purposes and practices. Chapter 49, "On the Manner of Keeping Lent," is worth quoting in full:
The life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent. Since few, however, have the strength for this, we urge the entire community during these days of Lent to keep its manner of life most pure and to wash away in this holy season the negligences of other times. This we can do in a fitting manner by refusing to indulge evil habits and by devoting ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and self-denial. During these days, therefore, we will add to the usual measure of our service something by way of private prayer and abstinence from food or drink, so that each of us will have something above the assigned measure to offer God of his own will with the joy of the Holy Spirit. In other words, let each one deny himself some food, drink, sleep, needless talking and idle jesting, and look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing.
Everyone should, however make known to the abbot what he intends to do, since it ought to be done with his prayer and approval. Whatever is undertaken without the permission of the spiritual father will be reckoned as presumption and vainglory, not deserving a reward. Therefore, everything must be done with the abbot's approval.
Other Lenten Helps from Benedict