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Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor's Penance

I’m fantastically bad at Lent. While Lent is a time of spiritual rejuvenation and hardcore mortification for many, for many others, it’s a middling to awful time of scruples, despair, and penances that never quite work out. I fall into the latter category.

If you’ve found yourself dreading the inevitable question, “So, what are you doing for Lent?” you’re definitely not alone. Such conversations always leave me feeling that I’m not doing enough, or that I will be judged as unholy if I share the fact that it takes me a painful amount of effort just to read the Magnificat Lenten Companion, pray a bit more than usual, and follow the Church’s minimum requirements for fasting and abstinence. For those who struggle through Lent like this, I think there are three important things to keep in mind.

First, take a step back for a broader perspective. It’s easy to internalize the Lenten spirit of “you are dust” as a demeaning mantra, when in reality, it’s a simple memento mori and call to humility. Penance does not equal mental or physical self-abuse. Take time to examine your mindset and search for ways that you might be distorting Lent into some impossible feat—it’s not the twelve labors of Hercules. Ask Jesus to help you see yourself and all things through the childlike simplicity of his eyes.

Second, “Christ’s crucifixion is the epitome of success.” These words from a priest friend both frighten and comfort me, and they are often in my mind. Being crucified can sure look like failure. Most who saw Jesus on Good Friday certainly thought so. What could a prisoner tortured to death possibly be succeeding at? Yet that is the glorious paradox of Christ’s death and resurrection. He died to defeat death; he failed in the eyes of the world to succeed in reopening the gates of Heaven. Even if our best Lenten efforts fall apart halfway (or are already dead by the first Sunday of Lent), Jesus can still raise them up as a path to spiritual growth. It may not be the idealized kind of spiritual growth we had planned on—in fact, it will be the kind of growth we can’t control, and that’s often the most authentic kind. Our idea of what is best is often wrong, and our follies are Christ’s triumphs if we let him use them.

Third, some people choose their crosses, and others are given them. We all have friends who take a very intense approach to Lent. It can be very easy to think you’re a second class Catholic because you aren’t an Olympian of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, but it’s crucial to remember that each of us is unique. Some people will find strict Lenten regimens incredibly beneficial or even necessary for their spiritual lives, and they ought to follow that path. Others, whether for reasons of mental, physical, or spiritual health, cannot become Monks for a Month (yes, Lent is more than one month, but allow me the catchy turn of phrase).

For example, my mental health often worsens this time of year to the point that adhering to a strict Lenten plan would be an unhealthy cause of anxiety and, in the case of fasting, could physically worsen my symptoms. My perceived failure when such attempts to improve my personal holiness fall apart has sometimes led to spiritual despair as well. In situations like this, seeking help and making choices to promote your wellbeing take precedence! The suffering you may face on the road to healing is already a chance to grow in virtue and may not need to be augmented by chosen penances. So too chronic pain, family needs, or obligations at work may be the cross you’re meant to bear both for and beyond Lent. That’s ok. Remember how highly Jesus praised the widow who gave her last two coins to the Temple treasury, and how he fed 5,000 with a child’s loaves and fishes. Offering up whatever you can, no matter how mundane or broken, is all that’s necessary. God has a long history of working wonders through the seemingly insignificant.

In the end, just keep striving to act with love toward God and neighbor. Take up your cross; don’t obsess over it or covet your neighbor’s. Practice gratitude and embrace the sense of wonder it leads to. Lent is not about reaching up to God by building a Babel of penitential works. It’s about further opening your heart to God that he might reach down and clear away the obstacles you’ve built. He won’t reject anyone who comes to him with a humble and contrite heart.

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