Avoid Perfectionism in Lent

The other day my kids found a pile of scrap wood in the garage.  They painstakingly hauled it, bit by bit, to our backyard.  On one of her trips, my eldest daughter proudly pronounced, “We’re building a treehouse!”

My heart sank.  It’s not that I have anything against treehouses, of course.  In my daydreams about giving my children an idyllic childhood, a treehouse features prominently.  I’d say it  ranks just behind “an acre of forested wood” and just ahead of “a pony.”

No, no, it wasn’t the treehouse itself.  What I knew in that moment was that my daughter had fixed an image in her mind about what her creation would look like.  There would be no wavering from the original intent, and when she inevitably failed in creating this mythical treehouse, there would be disappointment, possibly tears, and most assuredly, a mess.

As I attempted to help my daughter widen her scope of imagination (Perhaps a fort?  Or a spy hideout?  Surely something closer to the ground, and that didn’t require the use of power tools?) I began to see echoes of my own Lent within the conversation.  How much had I built up my own personal Lenten fasts with expectations of the outcomes?

Each Lent begins the same way for me.  I make lists of what I plan to do and then I dream of how much better a person I will be by Easter.  Such spiritual fruit!  What a holy body and soul!  This Lent will be different, surely.  I’ll conquer all my proclivities for sin, all my concupiscence!  This Lent I will succeed!

And then I stumble.  Every Lent, without fail, I stumble and fall.  On the days when my Lenten fasts have been too great to bear, I find myself despairing.  This isn’t what it’s supposed to look like!  This isn’t how I imagined it!  This isn’t the Lent I was intent on building.

You’ve figured out by now that I’m forgetting one key ingredient: God’s plans for me.  By fixating on my goals for Lent, I leave out the possibility that God has deeper, richer, more complex intentions for me.  What are my plans in comparison with His?

“Some, says St. Francis de Sales, argue that perfection consists in an austere life, others in prayer, others in frequenting the sacraments, others in almsgiving.  But they deceive themselves: perfection consists in loving God with our whole heart.” – The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ, St. Alphonsus Ligouri

Perfectionism is the enemy of spiritual growth.  Perfectionism says “I failed because I didn’t try hard enough.”  Spiritual growth says “ I’ve fallen, but I’m going to get back up.”  After all, Jesus fell three times on the road to Calvary.  Every time, without fail, He rose and continued on His way to the cross.  I can do no less.

Instead of beating myself up this Lent, I’m trying something new.  Every morning, when I wake up, I ask God to build me into what He will.  I’m getting up, again and again.  Perhaps more importantly, when I lose my temper with my children in spite of my greatest desire to be patient with them, I thank God for the lesson in humility.  When I absentmindedly grab a snack on Friday instead of maintaining my fast, I offer gratitude for the reminder to spend more time in prayer so that I am not quite so forgetful next week.  I’m letting go of my own plans and focusing on loving God with my whole heart.

So don’t let your own meager ideas and perfectionist ways ruin your Lent.  Turn it over to God and ask Him to perfect you.  He will find the good and the beautiful in your forgetfulness, and in your sinfulness.  God, if you let Him, will build your soul into the most glorious treehouse the world has ever seen.


Micaela Darr


Micaela lives with her husband and 4 children in Southern California. She homeschools during the day, and stays up way too late at night reading and writing, sometimes simultaneously.  She and her brood are still adjusting to life in California after 2 years in South Korea, so she blames most of her problems on jet lag.  You can read more from her at her blog, California to Korea (and back again).

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  • Antonia

    Very nice article, Micaela.

    I just wish we Catholics had been able to keep our pre-Vatican 2 Lents. Probably you’re not old enough to remember but we used to do Lent very well as a spiritual community when the rules were more rigid – like for Muslims in Ramadam.

    The statues of our favourite saints were shrouded in purple. There were rules about fasting. Catholics would even recognize each other as they passed on the biscuits (cookies) in the staffroom. There was a strong and noticeable Catholic solidarity in Lent.

    All that traditional solidarity was trashed in favour of an ‘individualistic’ response to Lent. It’s been disastrous. Why? Because human nature is so weak that’s why. Catholics used to draw strength from one another from knowing they were all in the same boat. As I said, like Muslims in Ramadan.

    Now we muddle through Lent with good intentions but … without that traditional solidarity I think we do it much harder than it used to be. I’m a cradle Catholic in my sixties and I find Lent very difficult these days. I’m far weaker than I used to be.

  • Michael J. Lichens

    As someone who attends an Eastern Rite parish (but still a part of the Latin Rite), I hear you. Every Lent, the whole community participates in the fast (with some allowances for folks, obviously) and there is a great sense of solidarity among them. It’s especially evident on Easter once the fast is broken and the celebrations begin.

  • Katerina Spencer

    Beautiful, Micaela. Thank you for the reminder! It applies to everything in life, I think.

  • Antonia,

    That is really interesting. I was born post Vatican II, so most of what I know about customs beforehand are anecdotes from my parents and grandparents. I can see the validity in what you’re saying: I’m always better at accomplishing my goals when I have a support system in place.

    Thank you for your thoughts, You’ve given me lots to think about.

  • I just was reading about some of the Eastern Rites’ Lenten practices and they sound intriguing. As I said to Antonia above, I do think it would be easier to fast in solidarity rather than be “the exception.”

  • It’s really true. Lent is difficult, but then, so is every day. Every day we have the opportunity to take up the cross again.