Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Avoiding Lenten Pitfalls

Lent begins next week, and I've noticed several Catholic bloggers talking about making their preparations for it: what to give up, what devotions to add, what good spiritual reading to incorporate into their daily schedule, and what works of charity or almsgiving they can focus on during the forty days when we enter into our Lord's Passion and offer up our sacrifices and prayers for our own spiritual growth and for the aid of others.

It has been my policy not to get into the specifics of my own Lenten observances, especially since I put my real name on this blog. There's a certain temptation to pride that can go into such things, and while I know that those who do share are simply trying to help others ponder what they can do to make Lent a time of fruitfulness, I also know that this is a prime opportunity for a kind of spiritual one-upmanship (e.g., "I'll see you that daily rosary and raise you a Litany of the Saints!" etc.).

But I think that some general observations about Lent might be worth sharing. Like many, I have at times struggled with approaching Lent in the right spirit, and have encountered certain specific pitfalls that have made Lent less spiritually productive than it might otherwise have been. So, in no particular order, here are the pitfalls I've experienced (I'm sure there are others, but these are the ones I'm most familiar with):

1. "Sacrifice" means doing or giving up things in the way that is the most difficult, the most burdensome, the most tiring, the most stressful, and the most impossible. If you're not burned out, exhausted, starving (metaphorically, anyway), and stressed by the end of Lent, this is proof that you didn't "do Lent" right, and were way too easy on yourself. I don't know why or how I ever got this idea, but it seemed like a good one at the time; the point of Lent was to be physically, emotionally, and spiritually miserable, and anything less than pure misery meant that you were just a weakling and a slacker.

The danger of this idea is, of course, that it will work out exactly as planned, that you will take on so much in the way of sacrifice, prayer, reading, and almsgiving that you will be burned out, exhausted, starving and stressed by Easter Sunday. This is not the point of our Lenten observances. Yes, you should know that you are, indeed, "giving things up," or offering something special to the Father during this time; Lent should not be just like every other season. But that doesn't mean that you have to be worn out with prayer and good works by the end of Lent, either; such a level of overdoing it means that instead of spiritual growth you're likely to be in a mode of grudging endurance long before the end of the season is near.

2. If one devotion, spiritual book, or sacrifice is good, then five are five times as good. Although this goes along with number one, above, the difference is that the person who gets caught in this Lenten pitfall often doesn't start out trying to do too much. Sadly, this one happens sometimes when we see or hear about others' plans; the times this has happened to me I've had some reasonable and "do-able" Lenten ideas, but have then heard of other books or devotions that others were using, and thought that I should adopt these practices as well.

It doesn't take long before we're right back in the exhausted/burned out stage; our simple Lenten plans have been augmented so much by the good ideas others have that we honestly can't keep up with it all anymore. The temptation to keep adding various sacrifices or devotions throughout Lent is a strong one, but I've learned to make my plans before Ash Wednesday, and then stick to them, more or less.

3. It is Mom's job to make Lenten plans for the whole family. Now, this one has a kernel of truth in it; certainly if the children are very young this is mostly true, and also if some plans involve the whole family (like giving up TV or having an extra meatless meal one day in addition to Friday every week). But often we moms think it's up to us to plan everything, from how often the family will attend daily Mass or Stations of the Cross to what additional prayers will be said to what our teenage children should give up, without striving to inspire our children to make their own choices of sacrifice and spiritual development (and that doesn't even get into the sometimes-serious problem of us treating our husbands this way, too, and assuming they need our help giving something up for Lent). At each age, our children will need different amounts of help from us. The toddler set doesn't "do" much for Lent; the elementary school set may need lots of help to join in various devotions. But from middle-school on, we should be stepping back and encouraging them to come up with their own sacrificial offerings, not merely giving them a list of family-approved activities and prayers.

4. It's just not Lent without [fill in the blank]. I remember vividly what it was like, not my first Lent with a baby (since she was only a few months old and could be carted around anywhere), but my second Lent as a mom, with two young children, a baby and the older one who was now a toddler. This was the year when some of my "Lenten Musts" fell by the wayside; I think we made it to an Ash Wednesday Mass, but evening Stations of the Cross, Holy Thursday, and the Good Friday services which began at seven p.m. were out of the question that year. It felt so strange to me, and I felt almost guilty for "skipping" such essential parts of Lent.

You would think that the experience of the next few years when some of these observances remained iffy at best for our young family would have taught me not to focus so much on these things, but to learn, instead, what I could do with my little ones and to be at peace regardless of what we could do for Lent. You would be wrong; as soon as they were old enough, I started putting demands on my family: we would attend Stations every Friday, or nearly every Friday; we would be at every service during the Triduum, we would take part in whatever spiritual offerings our parish made available. It just wasn't Lent without all those things.

But God taught me otherwise, because life kept intervening, everything from sick children to scheduling conflicts to everyday reality which made such ambitious plans unworkable. Gradually I learned that there were times and situations which made it impossible to be present for every devotional opportunity; more importantly, I learned that while all of these things are very good, it is not good to ignore one's family's realities and demand attendance at all the parish's Lenten activities--and then to be disappointed if things didn't work out.

5. The externals are what it's all about. I have, in the past, gotten caught up in the Lenten observances so much that I forget about the interior conversion that is supposed to be the whole point of Lent.

But the Bible reminds us of a few things that say otherwise:
Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God. For gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment. (Joel 2:13)

For you do not desire sacrifice; a burnt offering you would not accept.
My sacrifice, God, is a broken spirit; God, do not spurn a broken, humbled heart. (Psalm 51: 18-19)
For it is love that I desire, not sacrifice, and knowledge of God rather than holocausts. (Hosea 6:6)
None of these verses means that sacrifices, prayer, fasting, almsgiving, etc. are not to be done. They are, though, a reminder that these things are supposed to be working an interior change, making us closer to God, drawing us out of our sinful ways and strengthening us in virtue, making us kinder, more peaceful, more gentle, more patient, more caught up in the things of God and less focused on the things of the world which will pass away.

6. If I just do [x, y, and z] I will become holy. This one is closely related to number five above; instead of merely focusing on the externals, though, I've sometimes thought that merely doing all the right things in terms of fasting, prayer, spiritual reading and devotions, etc. would almost automatically produce in my spirit the proper disposition, making me "holier" during Lent whether I really wanted to be holy or not.

I don't know how many times in the Gospels our Lord warned us about the Pharisees, but this is pretty much what they always thought--that their strict observance of the Law of Moses somehow made them close to God, and gave them the right to look down on all the poor schmucks and sinners who couldn't even begin to match them in terms of prayers and actions and gestures and (very public) almsgiving. Instead, our Lord called them "whited sepulchers," pointing out that all their observances were not even close to being pleasing to God, because they emanated from a place of pride, not of humble faith and grateful love.

I've learned that it's far better to identify some real spiritual struggle in my life, and to think of a way of offering some fasting or prayer or sacrifice specifically to address this fault, than to multiply my observances in the hope that the sheer act of doing various things will produce the desired level of holiness or closeness to God. Rather than discuss anything personal, I'll offer an example that used to crop up in the Catholic college I attended: one girl would decide that her own struggles with vanity made it necessary for her to give up makeup for Lent, a good and noble act of sacrifice; but then dozens of other girls would decide that they ought to do this too, leading to an almost comical-Dr.-Seuss-starbellied-sneetches situation: the "holy" girls on campus were the ones spending Lent without makeup, while the "vain" and "less holy" girls were the ones taking shameless advantage of the situation by still looking attractive.

The reality, of course, was far more complex. Some of the "makeupless" girls didn't have any particular issue with vanity in the first place, and moreover had beautiful skin and naturally dark lashes, such that the "sacrifice" of going without cosmetics wasn't that big of a deal; meanwile, some of the girls who continued to wear makeup also didn't have that much of a problem with vanity, and decided not to jump on such a visible Lenten bandwagon but to focus on bad habits of their own, like laziness or untidiness. But the first group of girls "looked" holier than the second to the casual observer.

The point is that the level of one's holiness, or interior change, during Lent has a lot more to do with what's going on inside your heart and soul than it does with whether you're jumping on the latest "But this will make me holy!" bandwagon. The quest for holiness is a lifelong journey, and there is no special shortcut, no Lenten Observance To End All Lenten Observances, that will speed us down the path toward true holiness any faster than our own attempts to be patient, cheerful, humble and faithful in everything we do.

These are just some of the Lenten Pitfalls I've encountered in my life; I'm sure some of you could think of others, as well. But as we head into Lent next week, I hope I can avoid these pitfalls in order to benefit spiritually from the great gift of this penitential season.


Babs said...

Red - This article is about all I need to start Lent around my home in the right spirit... I'm hading it out to my children. You are a very spiritually perceptive writer. Thanks!

freddy said...

Good take on the subject!

Maria said...


Dawn said...

Those are good points.

Wendy in VA said...

Great post, Erin!

Marianne said...

Although I agree with a lot you have said...I do think that these "outside" devotions...let's say if you are having a "dry" period do help! It is true that we can get so involved with trying to do all these lenten sacrifices that we lose the meaning of it all. But, once being protestant, and now Catholic, it is my FAVORITE time of year. It helps me to really take a look at myself! If I can at least do three things differently then maybe...I do love the focusing on bad habits and replacing them with some kind of virtue. This is my opinion...which is just an opinion. I do find other blogs regarding lent very helpful at times.