The Practice of Lent

While I’m embarrassed to admit it, every year as we head into the home stretch of Lent, I breathe an almost audible sigh of relief. I tell myself that once Lent is finally over, things can get back to normal. I can eat sweets again. I can have a glass of wine or a drink. I can cut back on the extra prayer time. And I won’t have to try to see Christ in all those people I encounter—especially the ones I find difficult or troublesome. Now as I type these words, I realize how foolish and insincere they sound. I take a small measure of comfort, though, in thinking that I am not the only one who feels this way. 

Instead of breathing a sigh of relief as we head into the homestretch of Lent, however, perhaps instead it might be an opportune time for all of us to pause and consider how we have approached Lent thus far. Do we consider it an interruption of our otherwise comfortable life and normal routine, and once it is over we can go back to the way things were; or do we see it as a time to break old habits and/or try to develop new ones. 

In regard to the above, more often than I care to admit I see Lent as a season to be endured, and not a time for spiritual growth and renewal. Too often, I consider the activities and practices of Lent as being strictly penitential and sometimes even punitive. While on the one hand I know this is the wrong way to approach Lent, on the other hand I have grown fond of the ruts I have gotten into. I don’t like having to do “extra” things or “give up” things during Lent. As the psalmist says: “My sin is before me always.” (Ps.51.5) to which I want to add: “and I’ve grown accustomed to my sins, and am not sure I want to try to change them.” 

Now certainly the normal activities of our lives can make it difficult to maintain our Lenten practices and resolutions once Lent has come to an end. There are just so many things that demand our time and attention that it is hard to focus on other things. And it could also be argued that extending the practices and activities we have begun in Lent could cause us to not fully appreciate and celebrate the great joy of Easter. I think that there is a middle ground between simply going back to life as usual after Lent, and trying to preserve our Lenten practices and enshrine them in our lives. 

For myself, that would probably mean not breathing a sigh of relief and saying a prayer of thanksgiving that Lent is almost over and I can go back to my normal routine. Instead it would mean not so much cutting out, but rather cutting back on desserts and alcohol. It would mean continuing to give more time to prayer. And it would mean trying to be more attuned to God’s presence in my life—especially in other people. In this regard, the key for me is to set goals for myself that are realistic and achievable. I think this is true for all of us. 

If we are open to it, Lent can be a time of great grace for us. It gives us an opportunity to evaluate our lives and ask what we need to do to grow closer to God. Certainly this involves works of charity, as well as penitential acts and additional prayer. And while we may not be able to carry all of our Lenten practices forward after Lent comes to an end, perhaps we can choose a couple that we can try to work into the routine of our lives. The important thing, though, is that we make the effort. And if we fail—well there is always Lent next year. 

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