From the moment we are old enough to understand what Lent is, we are encouraged to either give something up or take something on in order to grow in our faith during these 40 days. The practice is so common and expected that sometimes we don’t think twice about the penances we choose — giving up sweets or social media are always safe and solid options.
And yet, as we are now adults who should be achieving a certain level of spiritual maturity, it is worth reflecting on the actual value of the penances we are choosing.
Specifically, I would pose this question: Are the penances we are choosing actually making us into better Catholics, or are they temporary practices that we have no intention of letting transform us?
Some of our penances truly are above-and-beyond sacrifices that give Lent a special character in our lives and help us to grow in discipline. But some, in all honesty, are not particularly difficult sacrifices for most of us. And some are truly things that we should be doing anyway, Lent or otherwise.
Take for example one of the commitments for those involved in Franciscan40: a daily holy half hour of prayer. I’m glad that the designers of this program included this commitment, since it is easy for busy college students to fall behind in their prayer schedules.
And yet, praying for 30 minutes a day is not all that radical. It seems like a very reasonable thing that someone in an intimate relationship with God would do. Perhaps this is a worthwhile goal to aim at year-round, even after Lent is over and your “commitment” is technically dissolved.
And even penances that are not carried out year-round should still have effects on us post-Lent. Take the example of someone who gave up sweets for Lent because he thought he had an unhealthy attachment to them. Once Lent is over, that does not mean he should start indulging every day thereafter. If the purpose was greater detachment, then he should find himself better able to deny himself even when he doesn’t necessarily have to.
My goal in writing this is not to try and take away the special penitential significance of the Lenten season, nor is it to argue that every Lenten penance you take upon yourself should be carried on year-round.
But I do want to point out the temptation to forget all of the progress we make during Lent once the season comes to a close. Lent should not be a rinse-and-repeat cycle in which you give up the same things every year and never actual sustain any permanent growth.
The point of these Lenten sacrifices is to develop detachment that sticks — to grow in virtues that will stay with you throughout the year and enable you to take on even greater penances next year. Ultimately, our lives should be constantly moving forward toward sainthood.
So, whether your Lenten practices have made a huge impact in your spiritual life or none at all, it is important to reflect on this and adjust accordingly.
Allow me to illustrate this problematic attitude using an example from my own life. In late high school and early college, I spent considerably too much time on Instagram. It was simply what I’d pull out in between classes or whenever studying became a little too boring, and I found that I was checking it too many times each day.
So, for a few Lents in a row, I gave up social media. Each time, I felt incredibly refreshed and empowered. I realized that I didn’t need Instagram and was happier without it. And yet, after Easter, I would just redownload the app and end up spending as much time on it as I did before. Then, next Lent, I would give it up again and repeat the same cycle.
Finally, I asked myself: if my life is so much better without Instagram, why do I keep redownloading it after Easter? Why don’t I just get rid of it permanently? So that’s what I did. And I have not regretted it.
Although the social media example is a relatively superficial one, this attitude becomes even more problematic when applied to more spiritual issues. It is silly to commit to a rigorous prayer schedule every Lent but then abandon the practice in between seasons, for example. This misses the whole point.
So I repeat: please don’t revert to your old ways after Easter! Don’t waste your Lent by making it a temporary growth in holiness that is stifled just a month later. If you gave something up or took something on for Lent, there must have been a reason. And while Lent is a special opportunity to radically focus on that thing, that does not mean you can just throw it on the backburner and ignore it for the rest of the year.
Remember that Christ is our strength, and with him no vice is impossible to conquer, and no virtue is impossible to attain.