Note To Self: Avoid These Lenten Traps!
Published: February 16, 2012
Since childhood, I’ve been trying to “get Lent right.” As a chubby child who was always on a diet, Lent struck me as another in a long list of no-no’s when it came to the treats I dearly craved.
As an adult, I’ve become very familiar with some typical approaches to Lent, which unfortunately tend to fail miserably. The reason I know them so well is simple enough: I’ve tried them all! And as Ash Wednesday approaches, I’m making a note to self: “Avoid these traps!”
Ava the A student: She promises to attend daily Mass, skip breakfast, give up chocolates and go to adoration three times a week. Ava’s laundry list also includes morning and night prayers, and attending all the Stations of the Cross. By week two, poor Ava is falling behind and feeling wretchedly guilty. She secretly regrets having signed up for so much, but she pictures God as an angry and demanding school teacher, eager to mark her Lenten report card with a big fat F.
Penelope the Philosopher: She vows to give up sweets and then spends most of Lent engaged in a legal battle with her conscience as she desperately tries to define her terms. Brownies and ice cream are obvious, but does a latte with whipped cream count? What about a muffin blanketed with a thick layer of cream-cheese frosting? If you have it for breakfast, it can’t be dessert, right? Poor Penelope sees God as a grim judge in the sky, poised to hurl his gavel at her if she makes the wrong move.
Bob the Braggart: All during Lent, Bob drops numerous hints, far and wide, about all the sacrifices he is making. All his friends are well aware that he is attending daily Mass and forgoing breakfast on Fridays. Problem is, Bob sees Lent as a competitive sport—and as he jumps over each hurdle his pride grows ever stronger. Bob pictures God as a demanding and forbidding coach whom he must impress.
Wanda the Worrier: It’s halfway through Lent and poor Wanda still hasn’t decided what sacrifice to make because she fears “doing Lent wrong.” Like Ava, Wanda pictures God as foreboding and demanding—and eager to give her a bad grade if she doesn’t meet his harsh and unrelenting standards.
Patty the Pragmatist: Patty has been hoping to lose enough weight to fit into that awesome outfit she purchased a few months ago—and Lent seems the perfect time to achieve this goal. So she gives up sweets and between-meal snacks, and on Easter Sunday, sure enough, she looks simply stunning in her fancy dress. Poor Patty sees God as a personal trainer, always cracking the whip to get her in shape.
Charlie the Cheater: Charlie vows to give up drinking beer during Lent, and he does just fine when other people are around. But when he’s home alone, he figures it’s OK to sneak the occasional brew. Charlie thinks of God as a policeman poised to give out tickets for transgressions. He hopes God is so busy watching Ava, Penelope, Bob and the rest of the crew that he will overlook Charlie.
And finally, there is Stewart the Saint, who sidesteps all these traps. He asks a simple question at the start of Lent: How can I show Jesus how much I love him? How can I offer him little acts of love straight from the heart? He calls to mind Christ’s words in Matthew 25, where the Lord tells us that whatever we do for the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned—the “least of these”—we do for him.
So each day during Lent, Stewart does something—however small—to show his love for Christ by serving the “least of these.” One day he visits an elderly lady in the nursing home. Another day he skips going out for supper and gives that money to the poor. He also stops in the adoration chapel whenever he can just to spend a few moments with Christ. Each act is small and simple but done with a stunning dose of love.
This Lent, I pray to put aside the quibbling, the cheating, the dieting, the worrying and the striving for perfection—and follow the saint.
And if I fall down, as surely I will, I pray that I will do what a saint would do—which is run to the Lord for mercy and forgiveness.
Lorraine Murray is the author of “The Abbess of Andalusia,” a biography of Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor showing how she endured the hardship of illness through prayer, grace and plenty of humor. She has also written two mysteries: “Death of a Liturgist” and “Death in the Choir.” Artwork is by Jef Murray. Readers may contact the Murrays at email@example.com.