When Catholics talk about Lent, we usually talk about what we are going to change in our lives. We view our lives as deficient, and in order to improve them, we must either subtract (give something up) or add (take on extra prayers, devotions, etc) to our lives to grow in holiness. This has been repeated so often it has become the conventional wisdom for Catholics. As a result, many Catholics approach Lent with a sense of agony and terror, rather than viewing it as an opportunity to live life abundantly in accordance with what our Lord has given us. (John 10:10)
As accepted as this conventional wisdom is, it is flawed. In the classic work The Spiritual Combat (a book St. Frances De Sales read from nightly), Dom Lorenzo Scupoli said the following about how to grow in holiness:
For whoever has the courage to conquer his passions, to subdue his appetites, and repulse even the least motions of his own will, performs an action more meritorious in the sight of God than if, without this, he should tear his flesh with the sharpest disciplines, fast with greater austerity than the ancient Fathers of the Desert, or convert multitudes of sinners.
It is true, considering things in themselves, that the conversion of a soul is, without doubt, infinitely more acceptable to the divine Majesty than the mortification of a disorderly affection. Yet every person, in his own particular sphere, should begin with what is immediately required of him.
What does “what is immediately required of him” mean? The answer to this question requires us to, before anything else, ask the following question: What did God call me to be? While we like to make this answer complex (see the countless material available online to all the different “vocations” we are called to have), the answer is actually quite simple. In our lives, God calls us to one of three things. He calls us to the married life, the priesthood, or the consecrated religious life. Any other “calling” is a means to that end. When we begin examining how to grow in holiness during this Lenten season, we should frame everything we do according to this principle. How will my Lenten observance help me grow in my vocation?
For example, you feel that a good way to grow in holiness this Lent is to read a certain spiritual work. (If you don’t have any, The Spiritual Combat really is a great choice.) While reading, your hear your newborn child crying. As much as you might want to search the depths of the great spiritual mystics, you have a job as a parent, and that job takes precedence over any devotion. A priest might wish to spend more time with the Blessed Sacrament, but during this time, he receives a barrage of voicemails from members of his flock who need real spiritual guidance or confessions heard. As valuable as time before the Blessed Sacrament is, that priest is called to be, above all else, a servant to his flock. That time before the Sacrament is meant to enhance his abilities as a priest, not replace them.
Another way to look at things is through the prism of laymen (priesthood of the faithful) or religious life. Both are necessary for the continued existence of the Church. A Church of only clerics is a Church which has forsaken it’s evangelical mission. A Church with only lay people is a church which has rejected all authority, and will perish just as surely as those in the rebellion of Korah. (Jude 11) Any act of holiness we undertake should as a result help us be better accustomed to this life.
This understanding is really hard for all Catholics today. While we pay lip service to the entire idea of a distinction between lay and religious life, we really reject it. Lay bloggers become the Holy Inquisition, viewing it their calling from God to warn the Internet of this or that danger to the faith from this or that foe. People look to make a business out of the Gospel, and use it as a way to further their career and expand their sphere of influence. They crave attention, and will use whatever is at their disposal to acquire it, especially if it involves telling others how to live their lives. Priests try to figure out what new creative strategy they can adopt, especially when that strategy is at odds with the local bishop. We should instead be examining what traits make up our state in life, and how can we better live them?
While this may seem daunting, there are actually some easy things someone can do to use Lent to carry out our state in life. First and foremost, use this Lent to gain a deeper understanding of the liturgy. The Second Vatican Council states the following about the liturgy:
Nevertheless the liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows. For the aim and object of apostolic works is that all who are made sons of God by faith and baptism should come together to praise God in the midst of His Church, to take part in the sacrifice, and to eat the Lord’s supper. (Sacrosanctum Concillium 10)
Likewise, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 1324) refers to the Eucharist as “the source and summit of Christian life.” If we are looking for how to remain true to our state in life, the answer (whatever that may be) lies within the Mass and the Eucharist. The worship of God is stamped within all of our natures, lay, religious, married or priestly. Likewise, the Eucharist is the one thing that all Catholics are called to draw upon, and the point of receiving the Eucharist (communion with Christ) is the point of all vocations. If you are still having trouble figuring out what to “do” for Lent, maybe try and understand the Mass better. If you are a priest, figure out how you can celebrate the Mass more faithfully, and present the Mass so everyone can grow in Christ with it.
If we are looking for ways to become better Catholics, we need to stop looking at things way above us, and start looking directly in front of us. We need to start doing what God calls us to do, only better than before. That is Lent in a nutshell.