He’d failed at Lent. The poor man, despondent in the middle of his first Lent, found he couldn’t keep the disciplines. He felt farther from God than when he’d started, and wondered at how much faith he actually had, if any. It was a sad note. But not unusual.
He was a new Catholic, who seems to have been over-doing it in that convert way. But some Catholics who grew up with Lent really hate it. They hear it as telling them they’re crap. I’d grown up in the sunny liberalism of a lefty college town. When in my early twenties, I discovered Christianity with a church year, Ash Wednesday and Lent felt to me like a bracing note of realism. It was the dark that made the light brighter, the descent into the pit that made the ascent to the peak all the better.
Most Episcopalians felt the same. When we entered the Church, I discovered a lot of Catholics didn’t. They’d grown up in American Jansenism, or in a puritanized form of Catholicism, or among Catholics who thought tearing you down completely would make you love God more. Some grew up under abusers, who will twist a truth to give them another way to hurt and control their victims. Lent gave their abusers the perfect tool for breaking them down.
I don’t have any insights into healing that kind of damage. But for the new Catholics like the man I mentioned and others who don’t get Lent, I have a suggestion. It helps me to think of the Lenten disciplines as training. (I’ve written about this already from a different point of view in Games Catholics Play.)
But not like Navy Seals training where you’re tested beyond your limits and will wash out if you fail — and the people running it want you to fail — because they want only the very best to succeed. That’s the way it’s sometimes presented, and often the way we feel about it. You have to gut out Lent. The more you suffer the better. If you enjoy Lent, you’re doing it wrong.
Think about it as like training to play a game, a training that is itself play. You go to baseball camp and find out you can hit the curve but can’t hit the slider. (Readers with other national sports will have their own examples.) Now you know something about yourself you didn’t know. You practice and practice, and then you step up to the plate in a game — and miss the slider. You keep practicing. By the end of the camp you’ve gotten a little better, but not much better. The pitcher will still throw you the slider when he wants to strike you out.
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So you go again next year and work on hitting the slider and get a little better. Since it’s your second year, you find out more about what you can do and what you can’t. You find you can run the bases well but you can’t take a lead off first base without getting picked off. That gives you something else to work on.
It helps too to think about God as a coach rather than a judge. A coach judges, because he has to judge if he’s going to help you get better. He wants you to hit the slider. He’s not going to throw you out of camp because you can’t hit it. You’re at the camp because you stink at baseball. He knows he’s going to watch you miss a pitch you should hit, dozens or maybe hundreds of times, but eventually you’ll get better.
All he wants you to do is keep trying. He doesn’t want you to give up because you keep missing the slider. Of course you can’t hit the slider. Few guys who don’t play for a living can. He wants you to get better at the game. He lives to help you get better.
You want to satisfy your judge. You’ll do the least you can get away with. You want to please your coach, if he’s a good coach, as our Father is. You can love a coach and you’ll do almost anything for someone you love when you know He loves you.
And here’s the thing about Lenten disciplines and penances: If you take them as a game, you can enjoy them. You can play with them. You’re doing them for an utterly serious end: to beat down those faults that keep you from loving God and others as you should. That’s the long game. It’s going to take a long time, maybe extending into Purgatory, and a lot of work.
But you can play the long game. Gave up meat for Lent and then ordered a hamburger when you were out with your friends? You failed. You missed the pitch. But now you know more about yourself. You know one pitch you’re likely to miss. So you work on hitting it. And sometimes you will. You’re out with your friends, they’re all getting hamburgers, the whole place smells like roasting meat, you’ve practically drooling down your shirt, and you say, “OK, I’ll have the hummus plate.”
It’s a hit. A single, but enough singles score runs and win games.