It’s 20 days into Lent. Your firm resolve to give up dessert and be kind to your annoying neighbor is wearing thin. You’ve missed your prayers three days in a row, even though you firmly committed to pray for at least 30 minutes each day. You’re invited to a dinner party where steak is served— but it’s on a Friday. As you walk through the grocery store, you catch a tantalizing whiff of fresh donuts, but you gave up dessert. Your neighbor is letting his dog bark endlessly again…
Sounds familiar? We’ve all been there. We begin Lent with the best of intentions, expecting to grow closer to Our Lord, but instead of becoming holier, we feel worn our and find ourselves growing irritable and impatient.
Since Ash Wednesday is now only two weeks away, I thought I’d spend the next three weeks writing about how to have a fruitful Lent instead of a frustrating one. Today, let’s look at the point of Lent.
The Heart of Lent
If we’re going to have a good Lent, we have to realize that the heart of Lent is not resolutions but repentance. Jesus began his preaching of the Gospel by saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” and his message has been repeated by all the great saints through history. And what is repentance exactly? It is a return to God.
Human beings were made for communion with God and participation in his Divine life. Before the fall, this union with God was as natural as breathing, but now, it is a constant struggle. In fact, our hearts seem to have a gravitational pull to anything but God. We look for happiness and satisfaction in everything but him, and our hearts cling to sin like a magnet clings to steel.
Because our hearts are inclined toward selfishness and sin, restored communion with God requires a radical and painful reorientation. Aided by grace, we have to wrench away the magnets of our hearts and point them toward what they should cling to: God. This wrenching reorientation is what is known as repentance.
Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving
So how do we go about reorienting our hearts? Throughout history, three tools have been recommended by Mother Church and the saints to aid us in repentance: prayer, fasting (penance), and almsgiving. I’ll write about these three tools more in the coming weeks, but the most important thing to realize about them is that they are means to an end, not an end in themselves.
So often we start Lent focusing on all that we are going to do or give up. We focus on what we hope to do, rather than what we hope to be. It’s like starting a strict diet and being proud of yourself for how much you will exercise and how little you will eat, rather than how much you hope to weigh at the end.
If we don’t have the right attitude about prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, we will get to Easter burned out and frustrated. We’ll think Lent is a waste of time, and we’ll grow discouraged at our lack of willpower. As we prepare for Lent, let’s keep the focus where it was always supposed to be— on a heart of repentance and love.
To help with this, I recommend praying this prayer for the next three weeks, as well as for the entirety of Lent:
Hail Mary, full of sorrow, Jesus crucified is with thee. Thou art deserving of pity amongst all women, and Jesus, the fruit of they womb, is worthy of compassion.
Holy Mary, mother of my suffering Jesus, obtain for us sinners, who have crucified thy Divine Son, tears of repentance and love, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
Have you had the wrong attitude about Lent? How are you preparing for this important season?