Sunday was Laetare Sunday -- more than halfway through Lent and this always seems like a good time to assess one's Lenten progress. A couple of friends and I had been assessing ours over coffee just a few days before. (My friends actually ordered something else, but, hey, I was focused on coffee, which I did not give up this year, although, if one is drinking Village Inn coffee one may as well have given up coffee up because the quality of Village Inn coffee is, well, wait ... I said I wouldn't complain this Lent ....)
Back to our conversation. What is working for you? we asked one another. Where were we falling down? Were we hard enough on ourselves? Too hard? Were we sacrificing the right things, the right amounts? Praying? Giving? What, what, what?
And I was struck yet again by how personal the liturgical season of Lent becomes. It starts off simply enough:
Pray, fast, give.
That's what the Church tells us to do. And it's a great prescription.
But the way it plays out in each of our spiritual lives seems to be unique to the individual. Unique, even, to the year and the season of life.
Last week, as I read through an old journal (I was looking for some specifics to include in a current writing project) I was reminded that one year for Lent I gave up a bunch of stuff: chocolate, coffee, snacking between meals, alcohol, TV, and I think something else. (Breathing? What's left?)
I don't mention this to get kudos for heroic sacrifices because these things weren't particularly heroic, though they felt monumental to me at the time, especially in the cumulative effect. I mention it because of what happened in that year. After that Lenten season, during which I was offering up all of my sacrifices for my husband's soul and conversion, he began to show a wee bit of interest in coming into the Church.
He told me he’d been thinking about the nature of evil, about how all evil really comes down to being separated from God. "And," he said, "I don’t think I want to be separated anymore. I want to be where you and the girls are."
This was huge, people. Atticus. The Man Who Would Never Be Catholic.
I don't take credit for any of it, obviously. God did the work. I would never claim, "Oh, yeah, I'm so glad I gave up Cadbury that year because that's how my husband found God." But I do cling to the belief that when we offer ourselves as sacrifices and prayers, He can and will use those prayers for good.
That's another reason that, for me, offering sacrifices that fall into both the "objectively good" and "objectively bad" categories is essential. It's one thing for me to give up complaining, but I also need to hear and feel my stomach growl.
How that plays out for me is different every year. I was trying to articulate this to my friends the other night, but it came out sounding so weak. Because, even though this year isn't packed with the same list of sacrifices from the miracle year I mentioned previously, I can still tell that this year, what I'm doing is working for me.
"How do we know when we're tackling the appropriate level of sacrifice and when we're just being lazy or selfish or making an excuse?" my friends and I were asking ourselves.
My only answer -- and it's not a very articulate one -- is that if you've ever dug deeply into Lent and have seen awe-inspiring results, and if, conversely, you've ever looked for a loophole and darted immediately through it, you just know.
I know when I'm fudging. I know when I'm darting. And I know when it hurts. And I know what kinds of deaths bring resurrections in my life.
"The way of perfection passes by way of the Cross.
There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle."
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 2015)
I think it's good for us to wrestle and discuss and ask our friends to help us sort out what's working and what's not in Lent and in our spiritual lives. My friends and I had a great conversation over coffee (and whatever they drank), and in some follow-up emails about how individual our courses are.
But, in the end, my friends and I each know, in the depths of our hearts, whether or not we're letting God work in us. It would be lovely if one size really did fit all, but that's a lie, in both fashion and faith. We are too fearfully and wonderfully made for Him to fit each of us with the same garment.
"Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling;
for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure."
~~ Philippians 2:12