Maybe you’re like me: a fairly self-disciplined person. You keep to a daily regimen, maintain some semblance of balance in your diet, sleep, and exercise. You don’t imbibe to the point of drunkenness. You don’t use God’s name in vain. You choose your words carefully. Despite these efforts, the truth is: you need Lent. We all need it. Here’s why.
Liturgical seasons put life in perspective
It doesn’t matter if you practice temperance and fortitude and piety to the maximum of what you’re capable of doing (based on your primary vocation). There’s always room for improvement. Lent reminds us that we are fallible creatures who need an infallible God. We have to move from autonomy to total dependence on God.
We’re more apt to see our lives and ourselves as they, and we, really are when we put any effort into our Lenten devotions and practices. There’s clarity, purpose, and meaning in our lives that somehow gets rejuvenated as each liturgical season draws near. We notice what’s important and what’s not, how we should be spending our time versus what realistically vies for our attention, etc.
This deeper draw within necessarily leads us to evaluate and validate our Catholic-Christian worldview.
Increased self-mortification reveals deeper, inner faults
Every Ash Wednesday, I dread fasting. I can deal with abstaining from meat, because it’s not difficult to come up with tasty, filling, hearty dishes that don’t include the standard chicken, pork, or beef entrees. But fasting is another ballgame. My body is so used to snacking, even on healthy fare, so when I am not engaging in that semi-mindless activity (hey, I have three small children at home), I have to think about myself in a new way.
That’s another hidden gift of the Lenten season: we have to pause and examine our interior dispositions a bit more thoroughly. Instead of the swift evening examen that might get shorter as we engage in our post-Lenten feasting, we have to stop and listen to our bodies. That stomach grumbling leads me to notice my thoughts, which often directly influence my attitude and behaviors.
We see our true weaknesses and tendencies toward what is comfortable rather than arduous. But we know that “the Spirit is willing but the flesh is weak,” which is why fasting is such a powerful form of prayer. It’s not that fasting is the only way for us to root out those dubious faults; rather, it’s that fasting reminds us that our true hunger is for what is eternal, not transitory. Our hearts are longing for God, the True Bread from Heaven.
Lent directs our hearts back to God through our behaviors and choices
We all become complacent and lax in some area of our lives. For me, it’s exercise. I try to schedule formal time to get my body moving, but the truth is that I don’t do it very often. Most days, I am chasing a crawling infant, a hyperactive preschooler, and a restless first grader (plus a moody dog) around the house. I rarely sit down. In some ways, I’ve justified this as my “form” of exercise.
But when Lent comes creeping around the corner shortly after Christmas festivities have died down, I realize I’ve become lax in more than merely exercising. It’s all sorts of habits I’ve picked up on subconsciously or halfheartedly — snacking when I’m bored or tired; pushing through to “get things done” instead of taking a break; convincing myself I’m “too tired” to get up and return the call from a friend who may have needed my prayers or support or a listening ear.
It’s to easy to convince ourselves that we’re too busy or too tired or too whatever. We all do this, whether overtly or subtly. Regardless, Lent shows us those areas of life that need a little strength training — much like our sore muscles do at the end of a long week.
This year, as I’ve consciously denied myself those little treats or pick-me-ups (e.g., daily wine and cheese with an evening movie), I pick up a book instead of a snack. And the book I read refreshes my soul, despite the fact that I really wanted to zone out in front of the television. Lent gives us all a structured reason to make the necessary changes in our lives that we already know we need. And change is what repentance is all about — rending our hearts, not our garments.