I recall one Holy Week, about a decade ago, when I began reflecting on how I had grown closer to the Lord and in my Catholic spirituality during the preceding weeks of Lent.
I was talking with my wife and had to admit that it really had not been a “good Lent.” Sure, I kept the practice of abstinence from meat on Fridays, I begrudgingly fasted on Ash Wednesday, and so on. I don’t think, however, that I gave up anything else that year. If I did, I probably lost steam and commitment at about Laetare Sunday.
In the ensuing years, I have not struggled to “have a good, productive Lent” quite as severely, but I have struggled nonetheless. My body and my temperament are not made for epic sacrifices. I have often said that my work as a parish minister offers enough opportunities for sacrifice, so I don’t need to give up anything else. Even if these are true to an extent, they are probably more of a copout for my weak will. Even with fifteen years as a Catholic under my belt, I am still not a saint who exudes heroic virtue.
Many of us, including myself, probably think that Lent is an all-or-nothing proposition. We might think that we engage fully for 46 days or we don’t engage at all. That leads to the situation I mentioned above, getting to Holy Week and recognizing Lent has not been a season of timely and rich spiritual growth. Instead of getting to that place, there are a few things that we can do in order to redeem Lent in the event that we look up halfway through and realize that it’s not going as well as it could have.
On the Third Sunday of Lent, Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington, Virginia, tweeted:
“At this halfway point in Lent, we pause to reflect upon our faithfulness to the promises we made on Ash Wednesday. If you have stumbled or fallen, do not get discouraged. Our Lord always gives us the opportunity to rise and to begin anew. Make the most of the rest of this Lent.”
Bishop Burbidge’s point is to take stock.
It is good and necessary to find a time each day or each week to inventory whether or not we have been faithful to the Lenten commitments we’ve made. Maybe it’s during a weekly holy hour. Maybe it’s Sunday morning before Mass. Maybe it’s nightly for fifteen minutes before turning on Netflix. The point is to choose a consistent moment for reflection and stick with it.
If we have failed to keep our promises, we have the opportunity to begin again. The Lord is merciful with us and so we should be merciful with ourselves. We should simply recommit, instead of foregoing the whole experience. If I have eaten donuts during the last thirty-four days, I simply should commit to not eating donuts for the next eleven. (Eleven is less than thirty-four, so it should be easier to keep, right?)
Another important point to keep in mind about Lenten promises is that they are not the same as marriage vows. It is possible to cease one practice and begin another, even during the course of a single Lent. If it turns out that giving up social media is “too hard” or it is not the thing that God calls for, we can shift to giving up fast food or some other things that is detrimental for our natural or spiritual lives. Again, taking stock daily and weekly will help us make this decision.
We should not only talk about beginning again or giving up something different during Lent. We should also talk about positive, concrete actions that can help us grow. Perhaps some actions will help us grow more than anything we might excise from our lives.
The prophet Hosea preaches a message from God: “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings” (Hos. 6:6). This should remind us that the purpose of Lent is not to heap up sacrifices, but to grow in knowledge of God and his steadfast mercy. Obviously, one of the best ways to do that is to engage in the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.
We have the opportunity for the final weeks of Lent to be saturated with the love of God known by the outpouring of his love. Each of us (even those who have faithfully kept their first promises) should find at least one work of mercy to do for the final weeks of Lent, so that we come to know God’s mercy and love more deeply.
Finally, we must remember perhaps the most important point about Lent: God does not expect us to be perfect right now. Indeed, he knows that we cannot be perfect right now. God will always make up by his grace what we lack in perfection.
So, instead of focusing on our failures for the first half of Lent, we should focus on beginning anew each day and asking for God to reveal his mercy and grace ever more fully.