[This post originally ran, in a slightly different form, in the National Catholic Register in February of 2013.]
PIC ashes on forehead
I feel like I can’t walk ten feet without bumping into an enthusiastic new convert, which is delightful, and so encouraging! Welcome, everybody! We papists have a little saying: Venite intus; horribilis est!
Heh. Anyway, you may be looking forward to your first Lent with enthusiasm but some trepidation. If so, you’re ahead of the game: it should be something to get excited about. Lent can be a wonderful source of grace. But as such, it can be a real mine field of screw-ups, especially for rookies. Here are some typical rookie mistakes during Lent:
Giving Up All The Things!!! Don’t forget: even though it’s Lent, you still have to live the rest of your life. So it’s probably not wise to take on such a complicated set of obligations and observances that you will need to hire a monk to follow you around, reminding you that you have exactly four minutes to make supper or earn a living before you’re due for your next spiritual reading, or to pray anther five decades of the rosary, volunteer another half hour at the soup kitchen, say a blessing before, during, and after sneezing, and put a fresh set of dried peas in your shoes, all on four hours of sleep without a pillow and after a breakfast consisting of half a prune. Just pick one or two things that you can reasonably stick with, or you will burn out and/or drop dead.
Giving up the thing that makes you bearable Lent is about you doing sacrifices, not making everybody else suffer while they endure your enduring your sacrifice. If your family sits you down 48 hours into Lent and presents you with a court order demanding that you start smoking or drinking coffee again, then have mercy and listen to them.
Leaving Loopholes As I’m prone to explain shoutily to my lazy, rotten kids, “That’s not cleaning, that’s just moving the mess around!” You’re not allowed to tidy up your bed by shoving all your junk under the bed. In the same way, it doesn’t really benefit you much to give up Facebook if you’re suddenly going to become a champion-level Twitterer. Or if you gave up chocolate, you get no points for diving head first into a vat of caramel. Substituting toothpicks for cigarettes, or water for beer, is a real penance; substituting YouTube for Netflix, not so much.
Waiting until the last minute for confession You may think you’re getting the most out of your Lenten Experience by doing one final purge during Holy Week. This is a horrible mistake. Unless you want to be on line forever and ever, or unless your priest shows signs that he would like some extra penance by being in that box morning, noon, and night, do try to get to confession before the last minute! Ideally, you should get to confession more than once during Lent, anyway. And of course, if you haven’t gotten around to it, later is better than never. But be aware that many priests do not hear confessions on Good Friday or Holy Saturday. There’s some dispute over whether or not they’re permitted to hear confessions on those days; but for many overworked priests, there’s simply no time, with all the preparations they must make for the Triduum.
Getting cute about it The standard observations are standard for a reason. I know it’s fun to be creative, but it’s kind of obnoxious to give up — I don’t know, adjectives, or clothes that match, or foods with the letter “r” in them. It might actually work out to be a difficult penance, but come on. No need to reinvent the wheel. If you’re a naturally creative person, consider it your penance to bow to the ordinary, and do what everyone else is doing for once.
Getting overly somber about it Yes, it’s a penitential season, when we focus, like no other time of year, on the ugliness of sin, and on the suffering and sorrows Our Lord took on for our sake. It makes perfect sense to curtail parties and frivolities until after Lent (it’s only 40 days!), and to make our daily lives take on a penitential tone which is unmistakably different from the rest of the year. But that doesn’t mean you need to quit smiling, or that we can’t enjoy being with friends and family, or listening to the first robin sing. We’re not Calvinists or Jansenists or any other “ist” that makes us quit being human.
Not getting back on that horse If you fail, that doesn’t mean you’ve picked the wrong penance, or that you’re incapable of doing penance. It means you’re a human being. Duh. That’s why we need Lent. Yes, you can back away from penances that turn out to be really disastrous; but don’t quit just because you fail. God likes it when we try to become holier, but He loves it when we mess up, repent, and try again. As Jen Fulwiler has pointed out, Lent really starts about halfway through, when the novelty has worn off and you still have to keep on sticking with your dumb old, boring old, purifying old penance.
After reading this list of don’t and more don’ts, do you feel a little taken aback — a little less confident about your powers to turn yourself into a better person? Are you starting to think that there’s really no way you can make up for your sins on your own, and that you’re going to need ten boatloads of grace from the Holy Spirit to even get through the day, much less forty days straight?
Ah! Now we’re getting somewhere.