Lent is not a Pelagian quest to work the hardest to get to Heaven.
The older I get, the more wary I become of my plans for Lent. When I was younger, I used to make a big plan of everything I was going to do: what I was going to give up, how I was going to pray more, etc. I often approached Lent with a “go big or go home” mentality. It was the perfect time to get things back in order, to kick bad habits, and hey, maybe even to lose some weight.
The last few years, however, I have tried to be much more aware of my heart and intentions going into Lent. The first reading for first Friday in Lent always helps purify my plans and reorder my intentions.
“‘Why do we fast, and you do not see it?
afflict ourselves, and you take no note of it?’
Lo, on your fast day you carry out your own pursuits,
and drive all your laborers.
Yes, your fast ends in quarreling and fighting,
striking with wicked claw.” (Isaiah 58:3-4)
The Lord is reprimanding the way the people are fasting. It’s not a condemnation of the practice of fasting, which he has commanded (in the Old Law and in the New), but a reminder that these practices have to be accompanied by a merciful, loving, and repentant heart.
He explicitly tells the people through the prophet Isaiah that they can have all the externals of fasting, they can go around with sackcloth and ashes and starve themselves – but these things are abominations to him if they are not accompanied by good works. The opening chapter of Isaiah is even more explicit:
“’What do I care for the multitude of your sacrifices?’ says the Lord” (Isaiah 1:11).
It doesn’t mean we should not make a plan for Lent and incorporate these things into our lives. But we should be examining our heart and our intentions, too.
Lent is about conforming our lives to Christ. At Easter, we should be more like him. It’s not a nice checklist of how hard I worked or how much I suffered. Nor is it a contest of who can take colder showers or give up more technology. It’s not a Pelagian quest to work the hardest to get to Heaven. But it’s also not just a time to be “nicer” or a time to just adopt a bunch of good habits.
How do I conform myself to Christ? By prayer, fasting, and almsgiving; sacrificing by giving up good things, uniting my sufferings to His, and growing in temperance and self-control; increasing my prayer life and looking for ways to serve my brothers and sisters; praying to grow in mercy, God’s greatest attribute, especially towards those around me who are hurt and wounded.
We are called to mortification during Lent. You should be adopting a practice that makes you uncomfortable. At the same time, if I do that while remaining in my sins, I’m missing the point. St. Josemaria Escriva points out, “the best mortification is that which overcomes the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life in little things throughout the day. Ours should be mortifications which do not mortify others, and which give us more ‘finesse’, more understanding, and more openness in our dealings with everybody. You are not mortified if you are touchy; if your every thought is for yourself; if you humiliate others…” (Christ is Passing By, 9)
Does my Lenten penance make me grouchy? This doesn’t mean we don’t mortify ourselves because we are touchy, but rather it means I need to work on being more patient, more kind, and better at suffering.
We can work really hard at becoming a saint. But no one is pulling themselves up to Heaven by their own bootstraps. That’s an age-old heresy that keeps coming back again and again. It hides within our desire to be better people – and thus we set out to create a self-help plan to work on our faults and grown in virtue. But we begin to lose sight of the fact that heaven isn’t something we earn or a prize achieved.
Do we have to work to grow in virtue? Yes. Do we have to labor to eradicate sins and faults from our daily lives? Yes.
But what does God want even more than our ten-point plan to make this the best Lent ever?
He wants us.
So go sit with Him for a while. Be still. Ask Him what He wants to do in your life this Lent. Perhaps He likes your ten-point plan. Or maybe He wants to do something else. But regardless, He wants you.