Halfway There: Reclaiming Lent If You’ve Lost Your Way
Taking on additional sacrifices and spiritual practices in Lent often requires some adjusting. Some of us start off excessively ambitious but crash and burn; others take it slow and easy, and come out of Lent no different than before.
I’d like to begin with suggesting a shift in thinking: we should look at Lent as an opportunity, not an inconvenience. A hamburger never sounds so good as it does on a Friday during Lent, right? It’s a common (and very human) mistake to focus only on the temporary difficulty and not on the long-term grace.
If your Lent has started and misfired in any way, don’t despair. There is still time to reset your Lent and finish strong. Here are a handful of suggestions for moving forward to Easter.
Root Cause Analysis
First, write down your list of Lenten penances/offerings. Next, ask the Holy Spirit for assistance. Then take an honest look at the lack of success. Were the penances/offerings reasonable or unreasonable to your state in life? Did they fit well with the state of your spiritual life? Including a spiritual director, confessor, friend, or spouse would be helpful in getting a better perspective.
A parent of young children, for example, would likely have a hard time praying the entire Liturgy of the Hours each day. On the opposite end of the spectrum, one of my past Lenten practices was to give up chocolate. Yes it was a sacrifice to some degree, but how much was it really? In between those two extremes is a person who gives up alcohol, but only has a drink once a month anyway. In this root cause analysis, try to pinpoint where on the success/failure scale your disciplines fell. Not enough? Too much? Not well-suited?
Pinpointing the problem makes the solution easier to see. In the case of unreasonably trying to pray the whole Liturgy of the Hours, appreciate as a grace from God the desire for more prayer. For the rest of Lent, shift that desire of more prayer into a desire for better prayer. Choose the part of the day that’s best for prayer—or best for the least interruptions—and concentrate your prayer at that time.
In the case of only giving up a small thing, take note that giving up something is good, but it’s actually an exercise. The goal of that sort of fasting is to be able to say no to something good, so that we’d be able to say no to something tempting, but wrong. Having a discipline like that is supposed to orient our life in a Christ-like direction; giving something up just because gets us nowhere. For those in this situation, I recommend adding a stricter penance of some kind, like additional fasting.
Adjust or Add Fasting
Fasting is a great way to restore momentum in the spiritual life, and especially during Lent. It used to be a key part of Lent; in centuries past, Catholics would refrain from meat for all 40 days of Lent. Currently, the law of the Church requires special fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and no meat on Fridays during Lent. If fasting in addition to the required norms isn’t part of your Lenten program, include it starting today!
The spiritual masters of the Christian tradition all fasted and extolled us to do the same. Fr. Don Calloway calls it prayer squared—that is, it doubles the value of prayer. This article by Sam Guzman provides an introduction as well as practical tips to fasting. Gabriel Castillo has a great video on fasting, including why and how we should do it.
At the start of a fasting day, I see it almost entirely in the negative. It’s inconvenient and usually coincides with a day a coworker brings donuts in. Look at all these things I want to eat, and I cannot have! At the end of a fasting day, however, I often look back in appreciation. More than once, fasting has helped me break out of a funk, see a problem/issue clearer, and made me more thankful for what I have.
One note of prudence: fasting should make us uncomfortable, but it should not harm our health. For those that have particular medical reasons why they cannot do an austere fast, be creative! As Sam Guzman recommended, one could refrain from salt or drinking anything other than water—none of which would imperil a healthy diet.
Embracing Struggle the Right Way
The way to improvement in any part of life is not to reach for the ice cream and remote control. Holiness will not come to us automatically; it requires our effort. Pope Benedict XVI in Spe Salvi cited St. Augustine, saying that “man was created for greatness—for God himself; he was created to be filled by God. But his heart is too small for the greatness to which it is destined. It must be stretched.” (#33) I think sports are a great analogy on this point. Does any professional athlete get up off the couch and win a championship? At the most basic level it requires practice, getting in excellent shape, and maintaining a high level of fitness. The preparation is physical, emotional, and mental.
If I saw a professional athlete approach their season in the same lackadaisical manner that I’ve often approached my spiritual life, I would ridicule that athlete. How could he expect to compete without putting in effort?
So how do we strive in our spiritual lives? No progress is possible until we turn away from mortal sin. Yet to think of holiness as simply avoiding sin is only half the battle. Turning toward the good and building virtues gives us something to strive for instead of just striving against our bad habits. It’s far harder to sustain the latter than the former.
Prayer & Entrusting Your Lent to an Intercessor
Come humbly before the Lord in prayer in all these things. If you don’t have a regular habit of prayer, your spiritual life is like an eagle pecking the ground with chickens. Lenten programs abound: daily podcasts, scriptural reflections, books, and videos. The Catholic world is richly blessed with so many resources! This collection of the daily gospel readings and reflections comes from Dan Burke & Fr. John Bartunek (click here for a PDF link).
We are not meant to embark on the Christian life on our own. Jesus gave us the Church for that reason. That includes the Church Triumphant—that is, members of the Church in heaven. We have a great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1) cheering us on and supporting us in prayer. This Lent, I especially recommend Our Lady, St. Joseph, and St. Michael as special intercessors. If you’ve never tried praying the Chaplet of St. Michael, I highly recommend it for reflecting on and praying for virtue.
Take heart and run in the way of salvation. Strive alongside Jesus in His Passion, for the resurrection awaits.