• julia marshall

The Most Common Mistake in Lent

We all do it. We get to this point in Lent and we say to ourselves, ‘this penance is actually a lot easier than I thought.’ And then you and I make the decision that derails our Lenten journey. We up the ante. We increase our spiritual load so that we can really feel it.

But let’s take a look at this for a moment. Are we to judge our success this Lent by how much we struggle? Some would immediately say yes, in fact many have argued that unless you can barely lift the weight you have imposed upon yourself, it is not a Lenten penance at all.

But let’s be clear about something.  The time for choosing your spiritual workout is best done before the trial begins. When you are clear headed and have much time to ponder your weaknesses and shortcomings. This doesn’t mean that you cannot change your penance, but we need to caution ourselves to do so only after an equal amount of prayer and thought, and with the help of a spiritual director if we have one.

The pitfalls of changing or augmenting our efforts may not be so obvious either. For example, many people seem to lose themselves in transition. As the effort needed to sustain the new action increases, the will finds itself strangely justifying a return to the former penance. Did they really make the new penance official? And maybe they didn’t really know what they were getting into anyway. Such thoughts lock the penitent into a mindset of constant flux, removing from them the rugged determination necessary of every person to live out the pains and struggles of this great season.

Another equally pernicious danger is that of turning our penance into a massacre. We can become so impressed with our own spiritual success that we honestly believe we can handle much more than our current penance provides. The penitent who gave up snacking has given up all meals and will only snack on bread and water. The penitent who was saying an extra decade of the rosary will now say all twenty mysteries. The person who hid a tiny stone in one of their shoes will now resort to self-flagellation. The problem of course is not the mortification, but the person receiving it. You and I see ourselves as spiritual Olympians, when in fact we have just merited a participation ribbon in the local contest of our souls.

So what should we do if we find that we are winning the race with ease? Carry on I say. We are only half way through Lent, there is a lot of ground ahead of us still. What you think is easy at this moment might become absolutely unbearable ten days from now. Stay focused; win the race.

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