At a recent meeting with young Catholic men this past Mardi Gras, we talked about the upcoming Lent season, why it is so important to us as Catholics, and why we should try to give something up in preparation for Easter. We then went around a circle and shared what we were planning on abstaining from during the next 40 or so days.
If I had been in this same position even last year, I might have been a bit uncomfortable. After all, I didn’t even give anything up last year. Or the year before that. In fact, I was hard pressed to remember the last time I had successfully gone the entire season sticking to my Lenten promise. I would often half-heartedly choose to give something up and eventually feel unfulfilled at Easter when I was finally allowed to partake in my usual habits again. In truth, I couldn’t really think of anything I could meaningfully and reasonably give up for Lent.
Pope Francis said in his 2014 Lenten message:
Lent is a fitting time for self-denial; we would do well to ask ourselves what we can give up in order to help and enrich others by our own poverty. Let us not forget that real poverty hurts: no self-denial is real without this dimension of penance. I distrust a charity that costs nothing and does not hurt.
Thinking about this made me realize that if I were to successfully undertake a Lenten observance I would have to be serious this time.
A few years ago, I heard of a great idea for people who had a hard time finding something to give up for Lent: why not do something instead of giving something up. Perfect! I thought to myself. I will pick up a habit that will be a challenge for me and which, hopefully, I would continue to be able to practice long after the season ended.
That is how I decided to pray the rosary every night. For the first few nights, all was going well. I’d sit down before going to bed at night, recite the prayers and reflect upon the daily mysteries that went with the rosary. Then, I would go to bed, feeling accomplished. Then, one night, it happened: I forgot all about it. I woke up the next morning feeling incredibly guilty. I immediately felt discouraged about continuing any further, as in my eyes, I had already “failed.”
For the rest of that Lent, I didn’t give anything else up. What if I couldn’t keep up with something new? What if it had less meaning that I’d started a new Lenten promise once the season had already begun? “I’ll do better next year,” I told myself.
This year, I had no idea what to do for Lent. I asked a few people what they were doing, and once again, “doing something” was brought up. Remembering the last time I tried, I initially wasn’t too open to the idea. However, as the days passed and Lent quickly approached, I began to think differently. I was now older, more mature, and in a better place in my faith life than when I tried the first time.
“I can do it,” I said to myself. “I should do it”. And so, on Mardi Gras, I shared with my men’s discernment group that, starting the next day, I would be praying a rosary every night instead of giving something up. A few others in the group even said they would be doing likewise. I felt confident that I had made the right choice.
For the first few nights, everything was going well. I even relished the time I could spend each night in silent reflection and prayer. Then it happened again: I had gotten home late one night and fallen asleep almost immediately, without saying the rosary. When I woke up the next morning, I felt that familiar feeling of guilt for having once again broken my Lenten promise. This time, however, it was different. It was almost as if I heard a voice in my head saying, “Try again. Don’t give up this time. Just keep at it.” And that is exactly what I decided to do.
Since that night, I have missed a few other nights praying the rosary, some for reasons beyond my control, and others simply due to my own carelessness. While I don’t necessarily feel good about not doing what I said I would do, I have stopped feeling like I am a “failure,” or that I somehow “lost” Lent, as if it is a sort of game to win.
I believe that as I continue to grow in my faith, I am also able to understand it better. We are not perfect, and our faith never gives us the pretension to be. As human beings, it is expected that we will stumble from time to time. This, however, does not mean we should simply give up. It means we should pick ourselves back up and try to be better the next time.
Scripture tells us to “be strong and do not slack off, for there shall be a reward for what you do” (2 Chronicles 15:7). In following this message, we grow not only as people, but as followers of Christ.