Lent provides people with an opportunity to effect positive change upon themselves and others around them, says Maureen Slattery-Marsh.

Maureen, chair of BACP's Spirituality Division, encouraged people to look outwards as well as inwards when setting any goals for the Lenten period.

"For many people it involves a character challenge, to embody and express a personal moral quality such as humility more consistently," she said.

"For others it's about what can I do in my journey in life for other people, what can I give for the benefit of others?"

Maureen pointed to 40acts.org.uk as an example, which aims to encourage people to make a difference through 40 acts, challenges and reflections during Lent.

She said that the processes of fasting, almsgiving and prayer which characterise the Lenten season should not become superficial, and quoted Pope Francis's advice from the early Church Father, John Chrysostom that 'no act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by advantage for others. So, no matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor and eat ashes and sigh continually, if you do no good to others, you do nothing great'.

Comparison with counselling

Maureen drew comparisons between people who look to make changes through the Lenten period and people who seek to make changes through counselling.

She said: "If you are becoming more truly yourself through the process of having given up something or having made a positive change, the sense of satisfaction comes in knowing that you have committed to a robust truthfulness about yourself. That you are becoming more able to fully own yourself, warts and all.

"There is an overlap between psychological and spiritual change. In becoming more generous and developing a greater sense of tolerance of one's own humanity, you become more healthy in mind and mature in character.

"When people come to therapy, they want to change something about themselves or around themselves. You can strengthen the sense of who you are, how you engage in the world and in life. Embracing the spiritual tradition of the 40 days of Lent helps in a similar way to become more engaged with the great questions of life, and what really matters in the end."

The right thing to do

And Maureen said that by looking at a bigger picture, people should not feel dispirited if they don't achieve their goal.

"That can be detrimental to people if the focus is more about an achievement rather than the process," she said. "We recognise we are flawed as human beings and failure is built in to the challenge that we set ourselves. Lenten tradition strengthens the capacity to embrace our weaknesses and learn to spring forward and bounce back.

"If it's about a bigger vision, it is still the right thing to do, to reach out to others. If there has been a gap in that, you can start again."