This Lent has been a particularly fruitful time for me. I cannot remember another one in recent memory when I have remained so focused on what the season is all about. Throughout the years, I have noticed the different personas of the Lenten figure. I have been each one of these at some point in my life. Here are a few of them:
#1 There is always an exception (or two or three) to the rule. Sundays don’t count, right? What about feast days? Sure St. Patrick’s Day is exempt. It is not that big of a deal to overlook my Lenten sacrifices– oh, just this once.
#2 I can change my mind. I gave up sweets for Lent, but a week into it, I think giving up sodas would be better. Two weeks later, you know, sodas aren’t really that big of a deal for me, so I will give up pizza instead.
#3 I will do it all. I am going to give up fast food and sweets and coffee (maybe not coffee) and wine (maybe not that either) and meat and… I am also going to pray the Rosary every day and go to Daily Mass and go feed the homeless and donate my lunch money and fast. I am SuperSacrificer; I will do everything for Lent, but none of it will be done fully.
#4 Sacrifice is not necessary; I am going to DO something good instead. God certainly cares more about my being a good person and doing good works, so giving up stuff is not the way to go.
#5 Make sure everyone knows what I am giving up. So, if I let everyone know what I am sacrificing for Lent, do I appear to be more pious? Fasting is admirable; I should let people know that I can’t eat or drink or have sweets. Do I sacrifice out of my own pride for show or do I mean to offer it up to the Lord?
I have made these mistakes and I have learned several lessons from them. I realize that sacrifice is not about me. Once I take myself out of the purpose of the sacrifice, paradoxically, I receive so many more blessings. Not eating sweets is good for my body, but it is better for my soul when removal of the weakness is offered up in conjunction with Christ’s suffering or for a special intention.
Prayer is key to surviving Lenten sacrifices. In moments of weakness when offering up the sacrifice is just not working, prayer helps resist the temptation in a powerful way. When temptation arises (I really want to stop at McDonald’s) a prayer for strength helps. Looking to God for His blessings and help in times of wanting a cheeseburger is practice for the big temptations in life. We will become so accustomed to praying when we fear falling, it will become second nature.
Overzealousness is also problematic. We cannot do it all. Cutting out everything we find temptation in only sets us up for failure, and then we resign ourselves to weakness. If we wallow in this lack of strength, we our spinning our proverbial wheels and we go nowhere spiritually.
Again, sacrifice is not about us; it is, instead, a realization of a weakness, and then it becomes a concerted effort to overcome that shortcoming as rehearsal for the big and serious temptations of sin. If we give ourselves an out or an exception and therefore permission to deviate from the rule we set for ourselves, we have created subjectivity and will learn to avoid the big objective Truth.
Mahatma Ghandi said: “The sacrifice which causes sorrow to the doer of the sacrifice is no sacrifice. Real sacrifice lightens the mind of the doer and gives him a sense of peace and joy.” Isn’t this what we all strive for in our Lenten journey—that peace and joy only a close relationship with God an bring?