Starting out Lent is a bit like starting out the new year. As it approaches, we make resolutions with the best intentions of keeping them faithfully no matter what might get in the way. And we do keep them faithfully, until a few weeks in when the newness wears off, and we’re faced with reality: It’s much easier to make resolutions than to keep them.
“I find many people approach our spiritual health like we do our physical health,” said Adam Janke, program director for St. Paul Street Evangelization. “When the new year rolls around and I want to diet and exercise, I’ll join a gym, buy a treadmill, get new running shoes and try to cut out all the junk food. A week later, that pizza and those donuts start to look really good. A week after that, I start to skip out on the gym. One day off can’t hurt right? Before I know it, I’ve given up on my resolutions.”
This can happen to us during Lent as well. It’s not a matter of being apathetic toward our Lenten practices, but rather, it’s human nature.
“Oftentimes, we make similar commitments in the spiritual life and then have a difficult time keeping them. When we jump in feet-first into developing an interior life with God without establishing a simple routine that works well for us (and one our spiritual mentors have helped us with), we become overwhelmed and things slip away. We are creatures of habit and we are wounded by concupiscence. We have an inclination to choose laziness with our spiritual health just like we do with our physical health,” Janke said.
Change it up
Understanding our nature and acknowledging our weaknesses are key to turning things around when our Lenten striving begins to wane. Rather than being signs of defeat, our struggles can be the impetus for re-evaluating, refocusing and renewing our Lent.
That’s the main reason Marcellino D’Ambrosio wrote, “40 Ways for 40 Days: A New Look at Lent” (Servant, $14.95). D’Ambrosio is a theologian and founder of Crossroads Productions. He knows that the best way to keep our Lenten momentum going is to vary our practices.
“The same thing can get old for 40 days straight, so you need some spiritual nourishment, meditation and some different ideas to incorporate into Lent that are different from the stuff you started with. You need some creative way of growing in prayer, fasting and almsgiving — or creative ways to combine them. So, it can be done — just one new thing or a few new things in the middle of Lent to sort of vary up your Lenten diet,” he said.
For Paula Huston, there are two primary ways that we can renew our Lent: First, change our attitude, and second, secure time for solitude. Huston is author of “Simplifying the Soul: Lenten Practices to Renew Your Spirit” (Ave Maria Press, $14.95). She is also an oblate of the Camaldolese Benedictines.
“I would say that the biggest trap people fall into is feeling like they’ve got themselves caught up in some kind of onerous chore,” she said.
Huston has noticed that people tend to enter into Lent with high hopes of learning something they think they ought to learn, especially if their practice involves the giving up of something beloved. Her advice is to try to change the way we look at it. She admits that is hard to do mid-Lent, but if what we’ve chosen to do (or give up) for Lent isn’t working, then it’s time to quietly let go of it.
“In general, I think that we have a slightly distorted view of what spiritual disciplines are even about,” she said. “Lent is a good example of a sustained spiritual discipline. I love what the early Christians, especially the whole Desert Fathers movement says about it. They say that the aesthetical practices were not about ripping something bad out of us or punishing; it’s meant to bring us face to face with a part of ourselves that we’re not normally aware of. So, it’s a kind of experiment you’re running, not a race. Lent is not an extreme sport. I think that’s where a lot of people get derailed.”
Humility is another key to renewing our Lent, according to Daughter of St. Paul Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble, who writes the “Pursued by Truth” blog for the Catholic Channel at Patheos.com. We must remember that Lent isn’t a work of our own, but of God.
“Growing weak on any promise is just something that will come and we have to be OK with that — not complacent but just realistic,” she said. “God knows we are weak; that is why he came to save us. When we start to lose steam, this is a reminder that Lent is not about our work but God’s work. Lent is a time for us to try our very best to correspond to God’s graces and to make changes so we can draw closer to God, but it is always God who makes this possible in the end, not us.”
Sister Theresa has personally experienced the struggles of keeping Lenten resolutions — sometimes, she admits, on the very first day of Lent. She pointed out that we can find ourselves slumping in our Lenten resolve at any time during the season.
“If we don’t take ourselves too seriously and are humble, I think slumps can become a beautiful part of our Lenten journey,” she said. “They give us the opportunity to meditate on the beauty of a God who came to save us from our worst selves. Jesus’ death on the cross unleashed all kinds of grace that can powerfully transform us. Slumps are a reminder of just how much we need that grace; we can’t do anything by ourselves.”
Make the time
According to Huston and D’Ambrosio, solitude in the form of a Lenten retreat is an effective way to get back on track. For Huston, it involves a morning routine that includes prayer and activity.
“My normal schedule involves about an hour and a half to two hours in the morning — really early,” she said. “It’s more than just sitting and reading the Bible or missal. It’s also walking. It’s stuff that I use to get my head on straight in the morning.”
D’Ambrosio recommends carving out time — in whatever amount — to get away from our regular activities.
“It can ... be just a day, like booking a Saturday or whatever day you have off where you actually go and spend time with the Lord,” he said. “It can be a nearby parish or monastery, or retreat house. It could also be out in the woods if the weather’s good enough. ... It doesn’t have to be a whole day if you can’t fit a whole day in, but some extra, significant time spent with the Lord can really bring a whole lot of light into Lent.”
For others, simply holding fast to their ordinary prayer schedule helps to secure and renew their Lent. Elizabeth Tichvon is a member of the Marian Catechist Apostolate and relies on the association’s requirements to guide her through Lent.
“As humans, there’s no way to completely avoid the temptations of this world during Lent, since we all suffer from the effects of original sin,” she said. “But by embracing this holy season with a regular daily schedule of prayer, God gives us the grace to see that after 40 days in the desert, what we’ve really gained is a beautiful habit that will help us continue to do his will.”
Sometimes, in spite of our best efforts, our Lent still falls apart. Then what?
“It’s OK to start over,’ said Janke of St. Paul Street Evangelization. “The saints have taught us it takes time to grow in the spiritual life. St. Teresa of Avila had a vision of mansions with many rooms that we walk through, drawing closer to perfect union with Jesus. If we are not ready for the penance we gave ourselves, let’s go back and renew our Lenten commitments and start again.”
Marge Fenelon writes from Wisconsin.