So, it’s Ash Wednesday, and Lent is come. You’ve read a dozen articles suggesting what you might do, or not do; what you might remove from your life for 40 days or what discipline you could add. You’ve pondered age-appropriate disciplines and how to get quiet. You’ve read so many suggestions and commentaries that you’re beginning to panic. What if you do it wrong? What if your Lenten discipline isn’t meaningful enough, or creative enough, or merciful enough?
Lent is here, but your head isn’t — not really, not yet. You know that if you haven’t come up with some social-media-approved scheme by which you might spiritually rebuild yourself top to bottom, you’re just going to end up giving up chocolate, again, and feeling like you’re beginning a season of penance with an inspiration-deficit.
Enter Saint Francis de Sales, who was in many ways rather like you and me, struggling to learn patience, wanting to vault the spiritual heights but consigned to the baby steps. This is a man who knows better than to grab at the high shelf before he has grown enough to reach it, or to settle for the low one out of laziness. And so he writes
God takes pleasure to see you take your little steps; and like a good father who holds his child by the hand, he will accommodate his steps to yours and will be content to go no faster than you. Why do you worry?
Baby steps …
You learn to speak by speaking, to study by studying, to run by running, to work by working; and just so, you learn to love by loving. All those who think to learn in any other way deceive themselves.
Don’t panic if you don’t have your Lenten season “all settled” today:
Never be hurried in anything. Do all things calmly and in a spirit of repose. Do not lose your inward peace, even if everything seems to be going wrong. What is anything in life compared to peace of soul?
First identify what is fundamental:
Examine your heart often to see if it is such toward your neighbor as you would like his to be toward you were you in his place. This is the touchstone of true reason.
And don’t kid yourself. (Maybe the first rule of Lent is “don’t kid yourself.”)
We all colour devotion according to our own likings and dispositions. One man sets great value on fasting, and believes himself to be leading a very devout life, so long as he fasts rigorously, although the while his heart is full of bitterness — and while he will not moisten his lips with wine, perhaps not even with water, in his great abstinence, he does not scruple to steep them in his neighbour’s blood through slander and detraction.
All of these quotes are taken from The Introduction to the Devout Life, which — even if your Lent seems unpromising today — cannot help but change your thinking for the better over the course of these forty days. Consider reading it as something to “do” in anticipation of Easter.
Even better, if you still feel like your Lent needs to be something “more than the usual,” the Salesian Center for Faith & Culture is offering its “first ever MOOC (a “Massive Open Online Course” on the Everyday Spirituality of St. Francis de Sales). It starts today and runs through March 26.
If you’re taking the class, we’ll be study-buddies, because I too haven’t quite come up with a Lenten game plan — it came so early this year! — and because I know that in such a case I can leave myself in no better hands than St. Francis de Sales, who (along with St. Philip Neri, whose Congregation of the Oratory counts Francis a member) we have pestered daily to be a patron of these pages.
Between the efforts of two such patrons, daily Mass and devotionals, this might be a splendid season, after all. O Saints, teach us what you know!