Lent is not simple. It’s not meant to be. And it’s not “Catholic guilt” that makes it seem so arduous, either. We shouldn’t discourage any sense of guilt that stems from the very heart of this season, which is penance and repentance. Nor should we give up if Lent was more than we planned. That sense of guilt and acknowledging our shortcomings are exactly what enables us to becoming closer to God in this time, which is the real goal in the end.
What do you do then, when you’ve utterly failed at Lent? Here are ten suggestions to help you to make the most out of your Lenten journey.
0. Accept what’s happened (or hasn’t)
Yes, we begin at zero because, before you begin to work on the solution, you need to accept the problem. Failure is often very subjective because of the standards we set out for ourselves. Perhaps this Lent you’ve failed to make it to Stations of the Cross, but you’re still saying your daily novena. Perhaps you’ve mistakenly eaten meat on a Friday. Or, perhaps you willingly ate meat on a Friday. See the difference? Accepting your shortcomings—what you’ve done or failed to do—is your first step to overcoming.
1. Go to Confession
Yes, you must go to Confession. This is the first for a reason. Even if you have not committed a mortal sin, you’re seeking healing from what you’ve done and haven’t done. Make a thorough and thoughtful examination of conscience, check out MassTimes.org to see when the next opportunity for confession is, and then make your act of contrition. Congratulations, you’re a new person! Now let’s make sure you don’t fail again.
2. Get back up
Remember, you only fail if you quit trying. God demands that we seek perfection (Matthew 5:43-48), but He knows we will have trouble. Like a child who falls when learning to walk, you just get back up and try again. Determination and perseverance go a long way.
3. Figure out what went wrong
In confession, there is a priest who always says the same thing to me: don’t take the first step. If it’s something you did or didn’t do, you need to find the pattern that led you to that action (or inaction). Maybe you’ve looked at pornography, or have given in to the thing you gave up for Lent. Think and ponder on the series of events that led you that point, and find what needs to be avoided or modified in order to overcome the temptation. Solutions might be: Drive a different way to work. Avoid staring at something. Keep yourself busy and distracted with good and productive activity. If all else fails, hit the panic button and pray the Rosary until the temptation goes away. Which brings my 4th suggestion.
This might seem obvious, but it’s not. When we fail we often convince ourselves that the solution is to work harder. Eventually, rather than just tire out, you’ll exhaust altogether. Prayer is what revives your soul and places you back on the right track with God’s perfect will. Remember, in prayer, to listen first and talk second.
The advantages of fasting are numerous. But for this purpose, fasting enables us to utterly dominate our flesh, which is what we need when we fail at Lent. In fact, it’s the exact reason we have the Lenten rules we do. You’ve heard the colloquialism, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” well… that’s fasting in a nutshell. Fasting is like steroids for prayer and getting things done. Here’s how some saints put it:
“I chastise my body and bring it into submission; lest perhaps when I have preached to others, I should myself become a cast away.”
-1. Corinthians 9:27
“Fasting is most useful in preparing the soul for prayer, and the contemplation of divine things.”
-St. Robert Bellarmine
“Fasting is the support of our soul, it gives us wings to ascend on high.”
-St. John Chrysostom
6. Give alms
Lent is the perfect time to work on “me” and part of doing that right is the mission of blessing others. When we give alms, we do ourselves and others a great thing. Alms enable us to receive justifying grace, which is exactly what our soul needs when we fail. Scripture tells us,
“By mercy and faith, sins are purged away”
The Lord heard from Zaccheus, “Behold, Lord, the halk of my goods I have to the poor: and is I have wronged any man, he is restored four-fold.”
“He that gives to the poor shall not want.”
“Water quenches a flaming fire, and alms resist sins.”
You’ve done everything you can to win up to this point, but you’re not winning, yet. Chances are, you’ve been given some advice that you didn’t follow. You thought you knew better. It’s time to go back and try what that person suggested.
If you’re failing at one area that’s very important to you, like your Lenten obligations, you should narrow down what you do during the week and focus on accomplishing what you set out to do. Cut out the things that don’t matter, and focus on what does. You can do this!
9. Ask for help
This can take many forms, but it’s no joke. If you can’t help yourself, there’s nothing wrong with that. Sometimes life really demands a lot out of us and we need to lean on our friends, our priests, our mentors, and our family. Be sure, also, if anyone offers help, that you take it immediately. When did help ever hurt anyone?