Dear Fr. Joe: Every year, Lent happens and I start off really hoping to make something of it. My intentions are the best, but it always seems like, the next thing I know, it's Easter and I’ve missed it. Can you help me do better this year?
I believe I can help you! Let’s start with an important point: You are struggling with something that I think most people do – the inability to “get it right," no matter how good our intentions or plans. What do we do about that?
We’ll start with St. Paul. St. Paul wrote about three-quarters of the New Testament. He was the bridge God gave us between Greek culture and philosophy and Hebrew culture and religion. He is so important to our faith that he is sometimes called simply “The Apostle.”
Yet, even with all that, he, too, struggled. Let’s peek at this passage he wrote in the Book of Romans:
What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I concur that the law is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that good does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh. The willing is ready at hand, but doing the good is not. For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want. Now if [I] do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. So, then, I discover the principle that when I want to do right, evil is at hand. For I take delight in the law of God, in my inner self, but I see in my members another principle at war with the law of my mind, taking me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Miserable one that I am! Who will deliver me from this mortal body? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Therefore, I myself, with my mind, serve the law of God but, with my flesh, the law of sin. (Rom. 7:15-25)
Isn’t that amazing? One of the greatest saints who ever lived ran into the same problem that you and I do, basically summed up in a simple phrase: I can’t get it right, no matter how hard I try, so I need to count on Jesus.
That’s the first step here: dedicate your efforts to Christ this Lenten season. Pause right here and now, reading this, and ask God to help you have a great Lent. Pour out your heart to him, share your past frustrations and your current hopes. Ask him to be your strength so that you are not relying on something so questionable as our human willpower.
Now, for the second step: get to confession. To me, confession is one of those sacraments that we simply ignore at our peril. This is an opportunity to let Jesus “take the garbage out” and fill our empty spaces with his mercy, his love and his strength. If you are nervous and out of practice, let the priest know that. Tell him you are scared and haven’t done this in a while. Tell him why you are there. He’ll pray with you, grant you absolution and send you out the door ready to have a Christ-filled Lent.
The next step is about our attitude. We need to approach Lent with a mental attitude that we don’t get to define a “successful Lent.” Why do we do this? Because our idea of success is so much different than God’s. We tend to judge success by our performance and/or how we feel.
We cannot judge a “successful Lent” by our performance for a simple reason: that often can lead to pride, if we have a good performance, or discouragement, if we have a bad one. I imagine you’ve met people who seem to “get it right” most of the time: they know the rules, they live them well and seem to spend a lot of time focusing on how others aren’t performing as well as them. These people, in my experience, can be some of the angriest people around and they don’t model a behavior that is appealing. This is because they have limited the idea of holiness to performance. St. Paul wrote a lot about this. You and I stand with St. Paul and recognize that judging our “spiritual success” by performance leads to arrogance or giving up. Our goal is not to be dependable for God, it’s to grow in our awareness of our dependence on him. We also need to recognize that we can’t judge our Lent as “successful” based on our feelings because, frankly, our feelings are wildly unreliable. Often, they will unintentionally tie us to the first problem: going on our performance.
So, we’ve prayed and dedicated our efforts to the Lord. We've gone to confession to let Christ “take the garbage out” and we’ve let Jesus purge us of the human means of judging our Lent. What do we do now?
We embrace the purpose and mission of Lent! We fast, we pray and we give alms.
Each of these activities is geared toward the heart of it all: We treat Lent as a spiritual boot camp where we push ourselves to renounce our affection for and allegiance to this world and deepen our understanding and commitment to Christ.
As Catholics, we fast. And during Lent, we take it up a notch in two ways. First, we abstain from meat on Fridays (put that as a repeating reminder in your calendar for every Friday in Lent – all caps: NO MEAT!).
Second, most of us fast from something during the entirety of Lent, except for Sundays. A good standard here is to choose something that you will miss, but don’t need. Hint: It doesn’t need to be food. You may fast from TV or Facebook. Every time you feel that hunger pang or that draw to eat what you have given up, pray that you will hunger for God like you hunger for it. Tell God, “I give you this suffering in sacrifice for my sins and the sins of the whole world.” That’s how we fast.
Importantly, ramp up your prayer life, both communally and personally. If you don’t typically go to a weekly Mass, make sure you do once a week during Lent. Make sure you get to confession at least once during the Lenten season. Mark those things on your calendar now so it doesn’t become a thing you do if you think about it. For personal prayer, get a daily prayer guide and use it each day. My favorite is the Magnificat. Almsgiving is caritas: love in action. This is when you and I pledge to be especially generous during Lent, to our Church, to the poor, to anyone God puts in our path. Check out your local Catholic Charities: They do amazing work and are always in need of financial assistance. In terms of your parish, consider giving more than you usually do each week. As a pastor of two parishes, I can promise you it will help!
Each of these activities is geared toward the simple premise of Lent: We push ourselves to renounce our affection for and allegiance to this world and deepen our understanding and commitment to Christ.
May God bless our Lenten season with holy dependence on him!