Here we are at the threshold of another Lent, and I’d like to share a few thoughts on making this Lent more profitable. In the past we have put out a general review, “A Few Thoughts on Making a Good Lent”, which is available to anyone who asks us. Today, however, I would like to speak to a few common pitfalls that can undercut our Lenten efforts.
Some Pitfalls for the Lenten Pilgrim
Some of us may be tempted to think of Lent primarily in terms of fasting and Lenten rigors, all the more if we react to the general laxity of the age. But fasting and Lenten rigors are only one side of a larger task – that of bringing ourselves into line with the will of Christ. In his classic call to discipleship our Lord said, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross [the instrumentality of his own death to self] and follow me.” This is a call to surrender all that we have and all that we are: body and soul, reason and emotions, appetites and imagination – everything. It is a process and, of course, it is a very personal thing, fitted to each individual. It also should involve a strong positive side of prayer, charity, and good works.
Nevertheless, we can say a few things about self-mortification. St. Paul has commanded us:
“Put to death [mortify] therefore what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming.… But now put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old nature with its practices and have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.”
But he also warned “Let no one disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement,… puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head [Christ].” Lent is not meant to be a competitive contest. We must be wary of all that leads to spiritual pride.
Also, anyone who undertakes to mortify himself will find that the human heart “is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” We often practice a type of self-deception. Desiring some thing, we often work toward it by indirection. We entertain the subtle temptation, which finally comes around to the same spiritually destructive end.
And oh how we make excuses, small evasions, concessions by degrees. We labor to cloak cherished vices and run after things that are distractions from the spiritual life.
Blessed John Henry Newman has warned us to be wary of vain curiosity, love of idle tales, curiosity about what does not concern us, especially curiosity about sin. The Apostle Paul tells us, “Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; be babes in evil, but in thinking be mature.” But how often do we read what we ought not to read, watch what we ought not to watch, listen to what we ought not to listen to, engage in foolish chatter or inappropriate humor? This Lent let us mortify our vain curiosity and the thirst for unprofitable knowledge. Let us curb the vain desire for a knowledge that does not profit. Knowledge is very well in its place, but we are often drawn away after a luxuriant overgrowth of leaves in which there is no fruit – no fruit to feed us. True religion feeds us. So let us understand that our chief duty is to reverence God and keep his commandments. Let us mortify the desire to chase after the glut of unprofitable knowledge and every vain curiosity. Today’s media offers us too much of this thing, and our souls never have sufficient time or ease to focus on what truly profits. Consider a fast from these distractions.