One year, physically exempt from Ash Wednesday and Good Friday fasting obligations, I gave up food I like. I ate food as plain as I possibly could, each meal more challenging than the last as I was constantly discovering the delights of steamed broccoli and plain rice. By the end of Lent, I discovered I like all food.
Needless to say, this was not my most successful Lent. When I look back at my other Lenten disciplines, I’m not sure those years fare much better — abandoned prayer practices, vague and overly ambitious ideas, or too many feast day exceptions. If I’ve ever had complete success with my Lenten practice, it’s been few and far between.
Another year brings another Lent and a chance to live this penitential season again. Once again, I am invited to grow in virtue and look more closely at the ways my own sins keep me from the Gospel. And, once again, I may fail in observing Lent.
Sometimes, the failure to keep up with my Lenten practices paradoxically leads to the most successful Lenten season. Unlike New Year’s Resolutions, the goal of my Lenten efforts is not self-improvement: it is greater union with Christ.
The failure to observe Lent in the way that I intended makes my own weakness and inadequacy very clear. My thoughtlessness, the excuses I make for myself and my poor self-control are brought to the forefront, highlighting my need for God. If I let it, this leads to greater reliance on him.
This is not to say that we must fail to practice our disciplines for Lent to be successful. God wants us to have self-control and to grow in virtue, not as a self-improvement project but to better love and serve him. The prescribed Lenten disciplines of fasting, prayer and almsgiving are suggested by the Church to help us grow in virtue.
Virtue leads us to that which is truly good, which is God himself. Growing in virtue, we are freed from the things that keep us from God. The purpose of giving up sweets is to break my inordinate attachment to chocolate and grow more attached to Christ. Lenten disciplines also aid us to love more fully: we are better able to be attentive to those around us rather than being distracted by our own wants.
As spiritual writer Jacques Phillippe says, “The desire for perfection is a good thing in itself, but it can be ambiguous. What do we really want? We would like to be experienced, irreproachable, never make any mistakes, never fall, possess unfailing good judgment and unimpeachable virtue. Which is to say we would like to have no more need of forgiveness or mercy, no more need of God and his help. If at bottom our dream of perfection is to be able to manage without God, we are no longer on the path of the Gospel.”
Anamaria Scaperlanda Biddick writes from Oklahoma City.