[Lent] was exhausting because of the sense of guilt I felt for a full forty days, every time I failed in my resolutions.
As I stood teetering on the precipice of Lent just a few days before Ash Wednesday, firming up my resolutions for the upcoming forty day fast, I didn’t feel the same enthusiastic courage I remember experiencing at the beginning of last year’s Lent. In fact, I was already feeling a bit discouraged and exhausted—before the penitential season had even started!—by the idea of the fast.
I struggled with hopelessness this year because, despite last year’s ardor going in to Lent, I had failed in my resolutions just three days into the fast. I had given up social media and snacks with the promise that every time I wanted one or the other I would say the mercy prayer, thereby fighting off the urge to partake while simultaneously enhancing my prayer life. However, despite what seemed like a peerless plan, I found myself the Friday after Ash Wednesday on the couch after putting my kids down for a nap scrolling through Instagram.
Last year’s Lent was exhausting. It wasn’t exhausting because my fast was too taxing on my body—my fast seems infantile in comparison with the fasts of the Church’s earliest Christians, who would go with as close to no food or drink as possible. It was exhausting because of the sense of guilt I felt for a full forty days. Every time I failed in my resolutions—especially every time I had begged myself in the back of my mind to have courage and discipline and yet nevertheless allowed my physicality to conquer my spirituality—I felt guilty and ashamed. I would try to start over, to reaffirm my fast, only to let temptation win out again in an embarrassingly short amount of time.
So here we are, having just entered a new penitential season, ready to do it all over. Ready to try and fail, try again and fail again. That sounds unbearably negative. But actually, this negativity has been a blessing in disguise because it was the impetus, through prayer, for two major realizations that have freed me from my discouragement and exhaustion in the face of this year’s Lent. First, I’ve realized that, simple as it sounds, Lent is just a microcosm of our lives here on earth. As fallen creatures living in the veil of tears, our earthly existence is one of constantly trying and failing; going to Confession, saying our penance with resolve for the future, and yet returning to the confessional within a month, probably to confess many of the same sins. Lent simply puts this reality before our eyes in a concentrated, forty day season.
I recall my baptism in 2016; having come into the Church as white as snow through the graces of the baptismal font, I guarantee it was within less than three days that I had sullied myself with sinful thoughts, words, and deeds. That failure is discouraging to consider, just as failing in my Lenten fast within three days is discouraging. However, to what else are we called than continually to wrestle with ourselves and our fallen nature? Lent, as a microcosm of this life, is merely a high intensity work out, showing us how truly weak we are, and reminding us that we can never stop training, regardless of failure or discouragement. Well that’s all great in theory, but for this to hold any meaning in our lives, we must also know how to train. The Holy Spirit led me to a further realization that, especially with
regards to Lent, we all need training in rooting out Sloth, a vice which Thomas Aquinas defines as “sorrow in the presence of a spiritual good” (Summa Theologia, Secunda Secundae Partis, Q 35). Last year, I trudged through Lent. I tried to trust the Church in her wisdom, but unfortunately mostly considered my fast as just another obligation. I saw it as merely a lack, a dearth. I saw it as something taken from me, somewhat but not fully by choice.
On my best days, I tried to think of it as a privation meant to mirror in some miniscule way Christ’s privations on our behalf in Gethsemane and on the Cross.
It is fair to say that I was the picture of sloth, sorrowing in the good that is fasting.
Why is fasting a good? Among many other reasons, because fasting allows us to order the world, to see that the earthly, lower order goods from which we are fasting pale in comparison to the good that is God. As Catholics we believe that all creation is good inasmuch as it exists through God’s hand. Lent is a special time when we give up created goods that we especially enjoy in order to weigh their value against God’s goodness, thereby coming to understand how significantly better He is by comparison, and how we need to die to ourselves in our physicality in order to love Him more than we love these lower goods.
As fruits of His creation, snacks and social media are goods. Thus, my sloth throughout last year’s Lent consisted of my saying to God “I know I like to talk the talk and say I love You above all things, but this snack is really inviting right now so I’m going to choose it over You.” I learned that, despite how much I thought I loved God, I was willing to put earthly comforts and pleasures before Him.
These realizations are not going to make this Lent perfect—they aren’t going to stop the cycle of trying and failing. However, I pray that they do help me to find joy in my fast, to find encouragement and see God’s love for me that is evident in every aspect of His created order. I pray that they help me to avoid empty guilt in my failures, so that instead of slothfully saying when I inevitably fail, “I’m such an awful person because I can’t do this small thing the Church requires of me,” maybe instead I’ll say, “God, I want to love You more than ______. Help me through Your grace to value You above all things.”
In heaven we will be like Adam and Eve in the Garden prior to the Fall, finding joy in all creation but infinitely more so in the Creator. May this Lent prove to be the high intensity workout we all need to rid ourselves of sloth and train us to love Him with the pure, unadulterated joy of our prelapsarian parents.