3 ways to live Lent when you are already in the desert
Our weekly schedule is a finely tuned and intricate machine that hums along beautifully, like a gorgeous circus trapeze act, as long as absolutely nothing unexpected happens. Let’s just say that for the last few weeks that has… not been the case. (Instead, I have spent most of February hanging onto the trapeze by my fingernails.)
I attempted a total overhaul of my prayer life, also in February. I lasted six glorious days before one resolution after another fell by the wayside. To my surprise, I found I was not failing because I was being lazy or weak-willed, at least not primarily so. Most of my failures were simply because there are not enough hours — nay, minutes — in the day for me to add a single other solitary thing to my plate.
And so. Ash Wednesday is tomorrow, and Lent begins, and I find myself on the ropes before I have even begun. In many years, Lent is a welcome opportunity for self-sacrifice and self-denial. But my entire life lately is self-sacrifice and self-denial. I commented to my mom that I feel like God has done nothing but tighten my thumbscrews lately, asking me to surrender, surrender, turn and surrender again. I am not on particularly friendly terms with God at the moment.
Lent for me has, in the past, been about justice: sorrow for my sins, trembling awe at the wickedness of the world, fear of divine retribution. This year, I need Lent to be about mercy: sorrow for my sins, yes, but trying to get back on friendly terms with God by remembering how much He loves me and my family, how much He desires the Good, True, and Beautiful for us, how sometimes that hurts tremendously because he has to lance our wounded hearts so they can heal again properly.
What I want to do for Lent is crawl into a cave and sleep for 40 days, and maybe pretend the last 12 months never happened. But here are the three steps I’m planning to do instead, a riff on the classic trio of Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving. For those of you in a season of suffering yourselves, consider these extremely simple, stripped-down tips to make your Lent spiritually fruitful, both for you and for God.
1. Prayer: Add one (and only one) prayer practice daily. I’m making mine a daily rosary (but that doesn’t have to be yours). I have built this habit in the past. I routinely spend 20 minutes in the car running hither and yon. I can do this, but only as long as I’m not trying to add this AND four million other daily habits.
The discipline of simplicity is more important here than the actual thing. Pick exactly one thing and continue it with humility and dogged perseverance.
2. Fasting: Fast from rash judgment, and extend mercy to others. Oh, so many things I could and probably should fast from. But social media is a lifeline for me now, a connection with a community I desperately need. And food, well, food is comfort. What I am fasting from this year is that all-too-frequent, exhilarating rush of righteous indignation. At my husband. At my children. At the many, many, many doctors with whom we don’t see eye to eye.
When you are already exhausted and taxed beyond your capacity to just, you know, function, pushing your body still further by fasting from small comforts may not be the Lenten practice that brings you closer to God. Fast from the things that are pushing Him away. Maybe this year, that thing isn’t chocolate or wine or Facebook?
3. Almsgiving: Offer a sacrifice of praise. I don’t doubt that the thumbscrews are here to stay a while. But I have been absolutely floored lately at how many people have approached and asked me to offer up our trials on behalf of other people enduring extremely harrowing trials of their own. I do not pretend to understand or appreciate what God is doing in our life right now. It would be so, so easy for me to spend a lot of time complaining. I can only resolve to “count it all joy.”
When complaints bubble up inside my heart, I will offer words of praise and love for God instead, interiorly or (better yet!) spoken aloud. Yes, we will give to the food pantry and the Lenten collections at our parish. But beyond that, just based on a quick glance at the world around me today, I think God could make better use of my suffering, patiently and joyfully borne, than of a few extra jars of Skippy.
How are you challenging yourself to move closer to God this Lent, even when you’re already stretched beyond your limits?