Every year I start out Lent with great ambition and hope for spiritual growth, but somewhere along the way I lose interest and let myself slide. I really want to avoid the slide this year … any suggestions to help me stay strong?
Sure! The key thing to think about is why you tend to slide. If you can identify the cause, then you can easily find the solution. In general, three things tend to make our Lenten resolutions less transforming than we would like them to be.
First, they can be unrealistic. Some of us have the tendency to bite off more than we can chew. It’s like the former jock who hasn’t worked out for two years. She decides to get back in shape. But then she sets herself an Olympic-style workout program. She does it for two days, but it’s way too demanding, so she drops it.
What she should have done is start small – a 15-minute walk and some stretching every other day for two weeks, for example – then build back up to where she would like to be. In our spiritual lives we can make the same mistake.
We forget that climbing the mountain of holiness is a journey of small steps. And after trying to take a bunch of big steps (and falling down every time), we simply give up.
Second, our Lenten resolutions can be off target. This is an endemic problem for us post-modern Catholics. We see the fruits of spiritual immaturity in our lives (impatience, unchastity, loose tongue, judgmentalism…), and we start hacking away at them, like cutting back the branches of a tree. But all the while, we leave the roots unbothered. When that happens, the branches just grow right back, or flourish even more!
If we really want to make progress, we have to do our part to get to the root of our selfish tendencies. Do you know what your root sin is (we all have one)? Do you know its most salient manifestations? If so, then you will be able to choose a Lenten resolution that will help you aim your efforts effectively, and this will give you momentum and strength to persevere.
If you don’t, I would recommend that you make a Lenten resolution to take up 15 minutes of spiritual reading each day, and read some solid, truly instructional books that will help you get to know yourself (like This Tremendous Lover by M. Eugene Boylan). Or, sign up for an authentic spiritual exercises retreat.
Additionally, you may want to look for someone who can be a kind of spiritual mentor for you, or spiritual director. They can help you aim better. You can also find some information about what spiritual writers call a “program of life” here. (If you have some extra time, you may want to listen to this radio broadcast, where I talk a bit about holiness and root sins.)
Third, we can suffer from impurity of intention. Sometimes even faithful Catholics can fall into giving things up for Lent for the wrong reasons. We can think more in terms of self-improvement than in deepening our friendship with Christ. If we do that, even in a subtle, subconscious way, we will run out of steam pretty fast.
Lent is not the season of Catholic self-help
Lent is a season of grace, given to us by the Church to draw closer to our Lord and prepare for the celebration of his Passion and Resurrection. Any Lenten resolution needs to be geared towards helping us open our hearts to that grace and drink it in. (You can find more reflections on the season of Lent here.)
Finally, don’t be afraid to alter your Lenten resolutions if you find they are not helping you live the season deeply. By changing them, you are telling God that you really are interested in drawing closer to him during these holy days. I will be praying for you, and for all our readers here!
Yours in Christ,
Father John Bartunek, LC
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