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How to love Lent when Lent terrifies you

Win McNamee/Getty Images North America/AFP

Anna O'Neil - published on 02/24/17

It boggled my mind when I came across someone who actually loved Lent -- now I think I understand.

“I love Lent,” a good friend once told me. “It’s my favorite liturgical season.” I think I must have looked at him like he had two heads. Who on earth actually loves Lent? For me, for as long as I can remember, Lent has been a season of heightened guilt and anxiety, with undertones of panic.

I struggle with scrupulosity. For me, this means that I have a strong propensity to fear — fear that I’m not doing God’s will, fear that I’m not going to be saved, fear that whatever I do, I’m doing it wrong, and fear that even my intentions are wrong, wrong, wrong. So unfortunately Lent, a time of repentance and penance, really tends to exacerbate these patterns.

I make extreme resolutions, which I fail to keep. When I do manage to stick with some easier commitment, I spend all my time worrying about whether the sacrifice was made with the right spirit. And could I be doing better? And aren’t my sins such that I ought to be practicing severe asceticism?

Well they are, but I know just as well as you do that those thought patterns aren’t leading me toward God. You can see, though, why it boggled my mind when I came across a person who professed to actually loving Lent. I was curious, and as I mulled it over, I realized it was because his approach to Lent was completely opposite to mine.

To me, Lent has been all about my own evil, my own deficiencies, my own total inability to live up to my own spiritual standards. To him, Lent was about God’s compassion, God’s irrepressible fatherhood, in a word, mercy.

I ran across kind of a silly comic the other day, which made a point that stuck with me. Don’t say, “Sorry I’m always late,” it said. Instead, say, “Thanks for your patience.” Don’t say, “Sorry I’m such a disappointment,” say, “Thank you for having hope in me.” There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging your failures, and repentance is unquestionably necessary. But this approach chooses to change the focus on the goodness of the other person, rather than the badness of the self, while at the same time, not excusing the wrong done.

It’s my key to being able to love Lent. I do have to see my sins, and I do have to repent of them. That’s non-negotiable. It’s just that I don’t have to focus on those sins. If I turn my gaze away from my own rotten, disappointing self (as I so often seem to myself) and focus on God’s compassion, his forgiveness, and the abyss of his mercy, I will be living Lent to the fullest.

Lent is not about our sinfulness. If it were, we might as well all just despair. It’s about God’s merciful response to our sinfulness, when we repent. We repent because we have been told to hope in God’s mercy. And the thing about mercy is that you can’t use the word outside of the context of sin. Mercy is God’s response to sin. So focusing on God’s mercy will actually lead us to more perfect repentance, but without that too-heavy burden of fear. We have nothing to fear from our merciful Father. I’m grateful for the season of Lent, and for the opportunity to bring God’s mercy to the forefront of my mind.

Tags:
CatholicismFaithLentPracticing MercyPrayerSacraments
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