It’s hard to believe, but there are less than two weeks left of this Lenten season. I don’t know about you, but this Lent has been a struggle for me. It seems like every which way I turn, there’s something luring me to indulge instead of fast (I had a stressful day and I want to eat my feelings!), tempting me to slack off instead of pray (It’s so late/early and I’m so tired!), or enticing me to spend money on myself instead of give to those in need (I’ve done really well with fasting and prayer—I deserve to treat myself!).
There is something hard-wired within human beings that runs away from the difficult and retreats into the comfortable familiar. There is also something equally innate that is all-too-eager to excuse one’s own failures, to overlook one’s own flaws (something that, oddly enough, seems all-too-eager to condemn the failures and flaws of others). We are masters of rationalization and justification, and Lent—the Church’s annual invitation (challenge) to look at ourselves with an honest eye—somehow turns many of us from masters into virtuosi, experts in every technicality whereby we might let go of the practices we’ve picked up for the season. Sundays don’t count. Solemnities don’t count. Meat eaten after midnight doesn’t count. This is more confession of my own shortcomings rather than condemnation of anyone else’s; again, this Lent has been a struggle for me.
But in the end, that’s kind of the point.
Lent is supposed to be a struggle, precisely because we find ourselves working against those qualities that actually are hard-wired into us as a result of our fallen condition. St. Augustine described this as concupiscence—a tendency that causes human beings to turn inward on themselves instead of turning toward God. Lent is our annual invitation to submit to the slow and often painful process of realignment, to reverse our usual desire for comfort and disdain for discipline, to set aside our self-indulgent self-preservation—in other words, to die to self in order to relearn that we were created to live for God alone.
Lent is all about recommitting ourselves to the practices that, time and time again, have drawn men and women of faith closer to God. Fasting. Prayer. Almsgiving. Fasting helps us overcome the desires that would turn us in on ourselves. Prayer reorients our desires and teaches us to love God alone. Almsgiving concretizes our love of God as love of neighbor. These are the practices by which our wills are conformed and configured so that we might be transformed and transfigured into more radiant witnesses of God’s love in the world.
Like most things worth pursuing, this doesn’t happen overnight. To my surprise, I didn’t wake up on Ash Wednesday magically transformed into someone who no longer wanted to hit the snooze button or bad-mouth other people or treat myself to Au Bon Pain on the regular. To my dismay, this very morning I woke up once again cursing my alarm clock along with my aspiration to get up earlier to pray. Because I did not start my day with prayer, I had a few choice words for the obliviously slow driver in front of me (Go faster! I’m late! Because I hit the snooze button! So many times!). And, because I did not wake up on time, I did not have time for breakfast, so I picked up an expensive egg sandwich and coffee from ABP on my way to work.
This has been the routine for more mornings than I care to admit, and since the beginning of Lent, a quiet but persistent voice has been trying to convince me that, if I can’t practice Lent perfectly, then I shouldn’t practice it at all. I should just give up and try again next year. Or not. Whichever.
This voice—the voice of temptation—clearly doesn’t understand what it means to practice something.
Practice doesn’t mean you’re already perfect. Practice means you know you’re not. Practice doesn’t presume immediate success. Rather, practice assumes repeated failure. Practice will include mornings when you wake up rested and ready to spend time with God and be kind and generous to everyone you meet, as well as mornings when you just can’t seem to get it together. More than anything, practice just means that you keep trying, and when the stubborn flesh proves too weak for a willing spirit, practice means knowing when and how to hit the reset button and start the process over again.
If this Lent has been a struggle for you—if you feel like you’ve failed and you’re ready to throw in the towel, don’t. There is no failure that God cannot forgive, and indeed, failure can become the first step back toward God when it leads to seeking forgiveness. Just as the season of Lent is itself a gift of the Church to re-examine our often-unexamined lives, the sacrament of Reconciliation is the gift by which God draws us back to himself, giving us the chance to hit the reset button and recommit ourselves to the life of faith. Whether it’s been weeks, months, or even years, don’t let fear keep you from entering the confessional and receiving the sacrament of God’s mercy. Remember the words of Jesus himself:
There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance. (Lk 15:7, cf. Lk 15:10)
Yes, 35 days have passed since Ash Wednesday, and chances are there are a few of those days that ended in a failure to live up to the practices you may have undertaken. But, counting today, there are still 13 days until Easter Sunday. There is still time to hit reset. And if going to Confession seems too scary right now, pray that God will give you the grace of contrition and the courage to bring your sins to the sacrament before Easter, and then recommit to whatever practices of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving you started (or thought about starting) on Ash Wednesday. Or just pick one practice and focus intently on doing that well for the next 13 days. If you’ve failed at any point this Lenten season, offer your failure to God, ask forgiveness, and start again. If you fail tomorrow or the next day or any day after that, offer your failure to God, ask forgiveness, and start again. The beauty of the sacrament of Reconciliation is that no one is ever too far gone; no one is ever beyond the grace of God, and as long as there is life and breath, there still is a chance to turn things around.
Featured Photo: Angela Marie; CC-BY-2.0.