Here we are about two weeks into Lent. Some of us are doing great with our Lenten penances; others of us have petered out or never figured out what to do for Lent this year in the first place. This is for those “others of us.”
It is not too late to start Lent. Should you have started on Ash Wednesday? Probably. But St. Paul says that now is the acceptable time. If you missed the first acceptable time, don’t panic (or despair or go lax); just pick it up now. Don’t wait till next year; it’s easy to do the same thing again.
Now we’re at “now.” Let’s find a suitable penance for the rest of Lent. It’s important to pray about this and ask God to help you see where you need to improve. If you can’t make it to a quiet chapel, remember that your home is a domestic church and your body a temple of the Holy Spirit: God is still present.
Let’s take a look at the three traditional Lenten practices – prayer, fasting, and almsgiving – and apply them to our lives.
Prayer. Where does your relationship with God need work? Have you been lazy about setting aside time to pray? Well, start now. Pull out your planner and write it in. Maybe you could add daily Mass to your schedule a few times a week, or a daily Rosary, or Friday stations. Having structure in your prayer time will likely make it more effective. Are you ungrateful and whiny? Commit to listing 10 things you are grateful for at the end of the day, and consider how God has blessed you.
Fasting. Where does your relationship with yourself need work? Which habits and desires are keeping you from sanctity? Where are you lacking in self-mastery? We don’t fast because food is bad; we fast because food is good but God is better. Are you rushed and crabby in the mornings? Set your alarm earlier and give up the snooze – and go to bed earlier if you need to. Does the internet eat up your time? Give up certain websites (Facebook? A blog you follow too closely?) or limit yourself to a set amount of time for “recreational internet browsing.” Pinpoint your weaknesses and refuse to let them beat you.
Almsgiving. Where does your relationship with your neighbor need work? Is there a certain person in your life who is difficult to love? Do one kind thing for them every day. Are you stuck in your own little self-bubble? Carve out some time to volunteer or just go visit people. (Hint: nursing home residents are not often visited.) Don’t forget to give financially to missions, religious orders, etc.
A few important notes about Lenten penances. First, the point of Lent is not to get to Easter with an “oh, thank goodness I can finally have chocolate again!” attitude. The point of Lent is to grow in holiness and to become a better person. This means a conversion of heart, a change or turning-around of perspective. The goal isn’t just to be nicer, but to get outside ourselves and see the crotchety neighbor with new eyes, to see his dignity as a human being worthy of love.
Second, don’t be afraid to fail. In his Stones of Venice, John Ruskin says, “Do what you can, and confess frankly what you are unable to do. Neither let your effort be shortened for fear of failure nor your confession silenced for fear of shame.” You’re not going to be perfect. Get up and try again, and get up and try again. For many of us, Lent concretely reminds us how good at this we aren’t.
For those of us who aren’t doing so great at Lent, let’s remember that God’s grace is limited only by our refusal to accept it. We can no longer change how we behaved at the beginning of Lent, but we can change how we behave for the rest of Lent. St. Teresa of Avila said, “The lukewarm do not embrace the Cross; they merely drag it along.” Let’s pick it up and get moving.