It is Lent. Thus, doom and gloom for the next six weeks! For many people this season means the great horror of no candy, soda, chocolate, snacks between meals, or, God forbid, alcohol. If this is all someone does for Lent, they are quite certainly missing the point. A lot of people know this, so they make sure to mention that they will also be doing something extra for Lent. Although that, in all honesty, is good, there’s still more to the this great season.
Lent is one of the most grace-filled times in the Church. It is also the season in which we collectively learn to embrace suffering. To a worldly way of thinking, this is highly ironic…or maybe downright silly. To a Christian, however, this is simply the life of Christ as usual. The Christian knows that it is precisely in suffering that grace enters the world. This is the point of the Cross. Our entire understanding of eternal salvation comes from Jesus’ willingness to suffer. So, in this season, we choose penitential practices so that grace may come into our lives. For most Catholics, prayer, fasting, and alms-giving are the classic pillars that guide our penance in Lent. These are genuinely important areas for all of us to grow during Lent (and after). Hopefully many of you have already decided to center your Lenten practice around these pillars.
By now, I would assume you already have a plan for Lent. What I would like for you to consider is how you can use that plan to grow in virtue, ultimately in the virtue of love, through your already established Lenten practices. Four virtues that can make Lent a great season of love are diligence, mercy, sincerity, and humility.
This is quite honestly one of the most difficult virtues of our time. The vice that gets in the way is called sloth. Sloth is usually understood as laziness, but in reality sloth is better understood as neglecting our responsibilities. So I could go for a run and still be slothful, if I’m running in order to escape from work responsibilities. Being diligent means to know what is most important and follow through in pursuing those important things. To put it in perspective of the classical virtues, diligence prioritizes with prudence and follows through with fortitude. Unfortunately in today’s world we have so many things vying for our attention. Sometimes it is hard to sort everything out.
We have so many options with Netflix, games on our tablets and smartphones, friends, sporting events, and other forms of entertainment that we sometimes get lost into a flurry of activity. With all of this, we need to be diligent about our priorities. When it comes to Lent, if we want to make it great, we need to make our practices a priority. We shouldn’t think that we can simply name our commitments this Lent and then they will take care of themselves. Without this virtue, we have no chance of sustaining our Lenten practices or getting back on track when we fail. Likewise, if we want to grow in love of God and others, we will need diligence in making them our priority. So, to make this year’s Lent great, the first virtue we can grow in is diligence.
For me, the hardest command of Christ is to love my enemies. Now, I’m not sure if I have any real enemies, but I do know that I’ve offended people and there are people that have offended me. Jesus said that we should pray for our enemies. Lent is a great time to let go of things that cause resentment. A famous saying attributed to AA is that “resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” Holding resentment generally has no power over the person we are angry with. In short, it doesn’t do any good.
Imagine someone is angry at you for something that happened three years ago. They never told you. No one else who knew ever told you. How much does this affect your life? While it may affect their life greatly, it has no effect on you. This is what it’s like when we hold grudges against others. They have no clue, care, or concern about the fact that we’re holding a grudge and they continue with their lives as usual. Letting go will change us, not them, and it will potentially rebuild a friendship that was damaged.
Lent is a time when we choose to do those good things that are difficult to do. So we should choose to love those that have offended us because it is the way of Jesus, his last words from the cross. Lent is a time where receive a great deal of mercy from Christ. In turn, let us be Christ-like, learn to love more purely, and forgive the people with whom we are holding any kind of grudges.
For all of my life, I have been attracted to sincerity. I think most people are. Sincerity gives people the ability to unite what they truly think with the things they say and do. It allows for authenticity and for who you truly are to be expressed through everything you do. It casts away any hint of living a double life. As I’ve gotten older, I have been somewhat desensitized to the power and beauty of sincerity. This virtue, however, is really important to growing and maintaining love in our lives. In Romans 12:9 St. Paul says, “Let love be sincere; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.” Those who sincerely desire all things good will know that authentic prayer, conversations, friendships, service of others, effort, and etc. will be more fulfilling then going through the motions.
We can keep love in sight and make Lent great again simply by reinvigorating our actions with authenticity and sincerity. We are not putting on a show for anyone, especially not God. Our goal is to grow more deeply in love of God and service of others. Let’s make it our aim to do everything this Lent with intentionality and unite the convictions of our heart with our Lenten practices and sacrifices.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux was once asked what the three most important virtues are. He famously replied, “Humility, humility and humility.” Anyone who has studied the lives of the saints can tell you that this medieval saint had it right. Humility is the greatest prerequisite for sanctity. Since sanctity finds its source in the perfection of love. Humility is the great prerequisite to learning how to love. Why is this? Because humility helps us first understand the greatness of God. Therein, we find a deep appreciation for others, who are made in God’s image and likeness. Lent is the time where prepare for the mysteries of redemption, especially the Cross which leads to the Resurrection. We don’t have the Resurrection without the Cross. Likewise in our lives, we don’t have love without humility.
Each year Lent is an amazing opportunity to grow in humility. To allow ourselves to understand the reality of God’s greatness and that we encounter that greatness in every person we meet. By denying ourselves legitimate physical goods, we can be humbled and reminded how much we depend on God’s care and provision in our lives. This year, challenge yourself to say “less me, more God.” As C.S. Lewis said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” Lent is a time of penance. But to do penance without growing in humility is making a shell molding of a season of great grace. So let us deny ourselves and truly put God and others at the forefront of our minds this Lent. This is the kind of humility that leads us quickly from selfishness to sanctity.
It is Lent. It is a season of incredible grace that prepares us for redemption and the joy of salvation. Don’t miss out on it. Don’t simply give something up, fast a little bit, abstain from meat on Fridays, and do a little something extra. Grow in virtue this Lent. Grow as a human being, specifically in love of God and as a man or woman for others. Instead of gloom and doom, by being diligent, merciful, sincere, and humble, may we all set ourselves on a path of realizing our potential to grow in grace and love for the next six weeks.