What is the purpose of Lent anyway? It is a "penitential season," that is clear enough, but what does that mean?
When you read this column, it will be halfway through Lent. It's a good time to look back at where we began and ask whether we need to make changes.
But on what basis? What should be our criteria? What is the purpose of Lent anyway? It is a "penitential season," that is clear enough, but what does that mean?
A good place to look for guidance, I have found, are the prayers of the Mass, and especially the special prefaces that the Church inserts for the liturgical season. For example, from this past week:
"You have given your children a sacred time for the renewing and purifying of their hearts that, freed from disordered affections, they may so deal with the things of this passing world, as to hold rather to the things that eternally endure."
Let's use this as a blueprint, then, against which to measure our resolutions and progress. Is my heart being renewed and purified? Am I becoming free from disordered affections? Am I turning away from this passing world, so that I am preparing myself for judgment after death and life with God in heaven?
Here are some "character types" and thoughts about how such persons might consider changing.
The Complete Failure -- This person made a good and practicable resolution, but has failed miserably to keep it. You said you were going to wake up at a certain time, before everyone else, to make time to pray, but you never could get out of bed. You were going to get to daily Mass during lunch break, but you were hungry or lazy or busy, and you failed.
Someone might say that this kind of person most needs to re-evaluate what he is doing in Lent. But I would say, probably not. The Complete Failure confronts his own weakness every day. He has likely grown tremendously in self-knowledge. If he asks God for strength and in humility keeps trying, starting afresh each day, he seems likely to make excellent progress.
The Giver-Upper -- This person made a good resolution about some kind of austerity of the flesh and has succeeded in keeping it. Perhaps it was easy for him to do so. For example, he sees Lent as a time to "give his liver a rest." Or he is happy to stop eating sweets because he needed to lose a few pounds anyway. Or, alternatively, perhaps he gave up something truly difficult for him, like that morning cup of coffee at the office just before getting to his desk. He has struggled hard against temptation and prevailed.
Now this sort of person might consider changing what he is doing. He might even consider following the advice of a wise priest who told my friend at the start of Lent, "Don't give anything up! Lent is about conversion. Convert in how you deal with your family members, how you deal with God, how you do your work." What do we say about someone who, for example, doesn't drink alcohol or eat desserts, but is nasty or ungenerous towards those around him? It might be better for him to put aside bodily mortifications and devise some suitable, hidden ones, such as smiling when he doesn't feel like it. (But he should make this concrete -- make a list of such mortifications and keep score.)
The Superficialist -- This is the person who, from bad habits over the years, has given in to the pressures to be superficial that are so strong in our world. He checks Facebook frequently, or he can't really live his life without the narcissism of sharing it on Instagram or Snapchat. He has not studied anything challenging since statistics in college 10 years ago. Nothing about the history of the Church is very familiar to him -- not its periods and events, not the great saints, not the spiritual masterpieces. His mind is filled with Netflix mini-series from binge watching. He can't bear silence -- he has to play music constantly, and so on and so on.
Now, this kind of person might make, keep, or break any number of resolutions, but nothing really touches his heart, because he has lost interior life. He has no depth; he does not cultivate silence or meditation. So, at this point in Lent, he looks back and everything is a blur, even the fact of Lent itself. What he needs, then, is a conversion prior to the conversion. He must seek silence, so that he can hear God. He needs to withdraw from media. Shut off the radio. Cultivate the presence of God, not the feeling of being with a group.
The Rationalist -- This is the person, in contrast, who has confused thinking about Christianity with the practice of Christianity. His Lent just is to study things and think about them more. He's working his way through "The City of God" perhaps. Or he is reading a spiritual classic on interior life. Or his goal is to reach a judgment on what he thinks is the pressing matter as to whether "liberalism is dead" and Christianity too is moribund as a result. -- This kind of person might advisably start with something small but potent which involved action. For example: Say the rosary each day. Pray with a friend or with his children daily.
Now is a good time to ask if we need to convert from our conversion!
Michael Pakaluk is Professor of Ethics and Social Philosophy in the Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America. His book on the gospel of Mark, The Memoirs of St. Peter, is forthcoming from Regnery Gateway in March 2019.