Here’s an actual thing I prayed Sunday morning at Mass: “Jesus, please help me stop failing at Lent.”
I wouldn’t say I’m a pro at Lent any year, but this year is hitting new lows in the spectacular failure department. One of the particularly depressing features is that things I used to be good at in previous years — this prayer routine, that bit of self-denial, those important tasks — I’m not hitting them like the imaginary composite “perfect Jennifer” does in my head. Pick the best Jennifer features selected over 30 years of Lents, feasts, and ordinary times, mash her together into a collage called “You Should Be Able To Do This No Sweat,” and then stand back and despair.
That’s not the point of Lent.
For those of us on the Lent Failure Track, this is the point: Discover again how much you need God.
Hidden Years in the Spiritual Life
Over the last week I’ve been proofing the paperback version of the new book. For those who aren’t familiar with it, the book walks you through an examination of your life with respect to the four ways of loving God — heart, soul, mind, and strength. (There’s a review here — thanks Patrice!) So here it is Lent and I’ve written this great retreat that is ideal for use during Lent, and I’m thinking to myself: If there is one thing Jennifer does not need to be doing right now, it is this retreat.
I have been thinking because my life is already very full, and I don’t need to think up new things.
But I’ve been proofreading the paperback version, and as a result I sort of ended up doing an abridged version of the retreat in my brain. The abridged version consisted of me noticing select passages that scream JENNIFER LISTEN TO THIS!!!! and then me getting an extremely clear idea, after reading all the words in the book, of exactly what it is I need to be working on in my relationship with God right now.
What I need to be working on is not glamorous. God asks us to love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and some corners of those four parts of ourselves are not impressive. I don’t think, “Wow, I would be SO HOLY if only I worked on _[thing that needs attention]_.” Foundational issues don’t amaze. It’s like a building. The bulk of the technical genius is hidden from sight.
The Things You’ll Miss If You Don’t Have Them
Yesterday was a gorgeous Sunday afternoon around here, perfect for getting out for a bike ride or a walk in the woods or doing something fun with the kids. Instead, the Superhusband spent his few hours of time off work replacing the toilet in the kids’ bathroom.
He could have gone out and done some Dad-activity that was easy for everyone to appreciate. If you’re the dad playing soccer at the park or pitching balls, everyone’s like, “Wow! What a great dad!” Replacing the toilet is like, “Wow! Look where the toilet used to be! It’s another toilet!” You do all that work and there isn’t much to show, because that work is an investment in nothing happening in the future. You’ll know the new toilet was worth it because: Nothing. There’ll be a lack of toilet-related drama and that’s it.
That’s what it’s like in Remedial Lent. Lent is falling apart because you need to make some adjustments. A good penance will bore and annoy you, but it works. You suffer a little, but mostly you just suck it up and do fine. When you’re failing at Lent, something needs to change. Probably something you don’t really feel like working on, because if you felt like working on it, you would have dealt with it from the outset.
So God is good, and He lets you try your thing. And then you start failing at Lent, and when you finally break down and beg for help, God reminds you of the other thing. The more important thing. You can’t believe it’s the more important thing, because surely something as small as that, or as ugly as that, or as intrusive as that, isn’t what Lent is all about, right? But you were failing at Lent. It’s because God needs you to work on loving Him in this other area you’d rather not.
When you decide to give your whole self to God, you have to give the not-so-shiny parts too.
Artwork: Christ in the Garden, Jeremias de Decker, 1656. Via Wikimedia [Public Domain].