We begin Lent (much as we did the New Year) with confidence and determination that this time we will maintain the self-control to sustain our resolution/discipline. For Lent, though, we are even more determined because our discipline is ordered toward our spiritual health. We are not merely trying to lose those excess holiday pounds, but are ordering our pledges toward the salvation of our souls. Even more, to the extent that our Lenten discipline entails some kind of mortification, we are joining our suffering to the Christ who suffered for us. What greater motive can we have?
Yet we stumble.
We miss that day of praying the Hours, or praying that decade of the Rosary. Perhaps we fail to send that check, to serve that meal, or to visit that shut-in. Or we eat that cookie, drink that glass of wine, or skip that day of fasting. Despite our most sincere intentions, we fail. Having faced the season with the strongest intent and most resolute spirit, we find ourselves—once again—floundering around in the muck of our ordinary everydayness. We feel like failures, in other words, and that’s mostly because we discover we have failed.
Often, the temptation is to give up.
I’ve already spoiled it, so what’s the point in going on? We are defeated, so why keep playing the game? But, while I admire and applaud those who are able to keep every jot and tittle of their Lenten disciplines from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, the other 99% percent of us should reassess how we measure Lenten success; or even what Lenten discipline is all about.
At least one purpose of Lenten exercises is to admit that we are sinners in need of redemption.
This is the season in which we acknowledge our foibles and failures. The disciplines that constitute our penance are, at least in part, a reminder of our inability to sustain the lives of virtue and spiritual constancy on our own, apart from the grace of God. So we acknowledge our need to repent from, and atone for, our peccadillos. Thus, our stumbling failure along the way should not dissuade us from continuing, but rather motivate us to start again.
Lenten discipline is often Lent-in-fits-and-starts.
I am not advocating that we purposefully fail, nor that we celebrate our inability to maintain perfect discipline. No “sin boldly” here. Rather, I am suggesting that, by our very failure to sustain the disciplines that we have set for ourselves, we try to deepen our understanding of our own moral poverty and spiritual destitution. These failures should induce us to try again, not constrain us to give up. Lent is not a demonstration that we are perfect but an affirmation that we are not.
Our Lenten moral and spiritual disappointments are affirmations of the purpose of our Lenten discipline.
It is precisely in our failure that we realize the need for God’s grace. In Lent that realization is concentrated and more focused than the rest of the year because it is specific to particular failures. It draws our need for God’s mercy into sharper focus and clearer relief.
Recovering addicts understand that it is foolish to make grand pronouncements that they will never drink or use again.
We know it is foolhardy — not to mention practically impossible — to take account of the contingencies that make claims upon our lives and throw us out of kilter. Such promises permit us to lose focus on the discipline needed to stay sober today. To stay sober for the next hour. To stay sober for the next five minutes. Lenten pilgrims can take guidance from one of the staples of a typical 12-step program.
The recovering addict measures his sobriety a day at time.
If he fails one day, he does not give up the program. He starts again the next day. Then, he starts again the next. So much more for Lent, where we are focused on eternal life. The failure of our Lenten discipline is a reminder of our need for Lenten discipline.
Kenneth Craycraft is an attorney and the James J. Gardner Family Chair of Moral Theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and School of Theology, in Cincinnati.
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