Make This Lent Your Best Ever
Resist temptation. Repent. Come back. Detach. These, and many other, words we often hear during the Lenten season are difficult for us. They bespeak of a deep self-mortification that invites us to clean house – to sift through the junk in our hearts and souls (e.g., sin) and replace what is messy and dirty with what is pure, that is, virtue.
As we begin our journey, we focus on Lent’s true message: reconciliation by way of God’s mercy. We can discover, or rediscover, our authentic identities in Christ when we turn away from all that distracts and detracts us from entering into our own unique passion that, in time, paves the way to the promise of resurrection.
“Return to me with your whole heart, with fasting and weeping, and mourning; rend your hearts, not your garments.” (Joel 2: 12-13a)
The prophet Joel leads us straight to what we perceive as the “duties” of our Lenten experience: fasting and meditating on the Stations of the Cross or Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary. We may weep, but it’s not always Lent when we suffer devastating loss. Grief afflicts our lives at any moment, sometimes lasting a lifetime.
If so, we find comfort in Joel’s words, knowing that our suffering can yield goodness in God’s hands. Our broken hearts do not have to remain as such; we simply hand God what we have – no matter how small or miserable – and He gently takes our offering and transforms it into something beautiful.
That is why returning to God through our Lenten penances and practices must be our sole motivation for these outward works. It’s not enough to merely go through the motions – to rend our garments. We have to be a people of changed hearts and minds – and rend our hearts. We have to be a people of humility who are willing to admit our faults and sins and come back to God, time and time again.
“Since it is necessary for us to endure the storms and tempests of this world while we are still in this frail body, as often as the enemy wills to lead us astray by means of the roughest storms or to deceive us by the most voluptuous pleasures, with God’s help may he always find us prepared against him.” (St. Caesarius of Arles)
Sometimes all of life seems like an extended Lent. We might come upon Ash Wednesday and think, “But my life already feels like one huge sacrifice. My burdens are many.” More and more of us are carrying heavier crosses, and we are asked to courageously brave the storms and tempests of this life – perhaps to draw others closer to God and certainly to bring us into a deeper dependence upon His providence.
We can’t avoid the reality that at the center of our trials is the Tempter himself. If we are at a crossroads, facing some unforeseen spiritual breakthrough, the devil knows this. He wants to do nothing more than dissuade us by every possible means, so that we do not spiritually advance but instead fall into doubt and despair.
Often the greatest storms are those we battle in our minds and hearts – the invisible, hidden points of suffering that cause some of our greatest afflictions. Lent reminds us of this battle, but ultimately points us toward the beacon of hope – Jesus. Through Him, with Him, and in Him, we are delivered from Satan’s grasp. We only have to turn to Him in every struggle, great and small.
“When we are crushed like grapes, we cannot think of the wine we will become.” (Henri Nouwen)
It’s not difficult to imagine the weight of the Cross when we are in the midst of a particularly intense trial. At times, our hearts feel as if they are crushed, perhaps as Jesus felt His Body crushed as He fell three times. We know we are weak, and we know Jesus took on human weakness as a choice for the sake of love. Must we do the same? Must we allow our weakness to somehow be a gift to God?
There is a way to look at the crushing blows of spiritual pruning without losing sight of our ultimate end – Heaven. Maybe that’s what kept Jesus going, putting one foot in front of the other, as He walked that long and lonely road to Calvary. He knew the torture and rejection and slander and thirst and pain were not the be-all-end-all. They were a means to a greater way, the only way His Father desired – the way of self-death in order to be born into permanent, everlasting happiness.
We must allow God to crush us at times. Let’s allow this Lent to be an opportunity for us to hand ourselves over to God, as Jesus allowed Himself to be handed over to the Roman guards in the Garden of Gethsemane. He knew He would be crushed in every imaginable way. We have to enter into our own pruning without fear, but with courageous resignation to the Divine Will. Keep sight of what comes of this seeming punishment – new wine with robust flavor that gladdens the heart.
God always makes masterpieces out of our misery.
“The secret of success [of mortification] is to think less of ourselves and more of God and of his glory, of Christ and of his Mother.” (Fr. Leonce de Grandmaison, S.J.)
Part of our ongoing trouble is that we dwell too much on ourselves – what others think of us, how we appear in public, whether or not we said or did the right thing in a certain situation, and so on. We are too egocentric, which is one form of pride the devil uses to keep us from seeing God. When we overanalyze ourselves, we cannot be looking around us or even deeply within.
This Lent, become grounded in your focus. Keep the eyes of your heart on the narrow passages where God dwells in and around you. Find Him in the people you know, or even the stranger you encounter at random. Believe with confidence that He uses every circumstance in your life to touch someone’s heart or to reach yours. Nothing is lost on God. Think: “He must increase; I must decrease.”