The last full week of Lent, before Holy Week begins, has always been a bit of a struggle for me. Usually by this time, I’ve already slipped up on my voluntary Lenten penances once or several times, I’m ready for the Triduum to just be here already, and I’m completely over the color purple. My husband and I jokingly call this spiritual sluggishness or restlessness “the end-of-Lent slog.” It seems like these particular days before Holy Week ramps up are when we are tempted the most to go back to the things we’re fasting from or to just throw in the towel on Lent because we’re “basically done.”
My husband and I pray Evening Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours together, and one of the readings that has resonated with me this Lent comes from St. Paul. In his first letter to the Corinthians, he encourages his readers to imitate well-trained athletes and to “run so as to win.” He continues: “Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one.” When I was a teenager, I viewed Lent as a sprint: choose some really intense or difficult penances, struggle to maintain an unrealistically high level of spiritual rigor, and then after Easter gleefully go right back to doing and eating all the things I had given up while tossing out all the spiritual growth I’d supposedly just undergone. As I matured in my faith, I came to understand that Lent is not meant to be a temporary, intense lifestyle challenge; rather, it is the start of a marathon. It’s a specific time to motivate ourselves to grow deeper in our relationship with God by letting go of the things that keep us from Him and by doing more difficult penances for our sins and vices—preferably by abstaining from them and thus breaking our addictions to or reliance on them.
Like St. Paul says, we ought to treat our spiritual lives the way that athletes treat their sport: they dedicate themselves to it, setting higher and higher goals, training their bodies, denying themselves in order to maintain peak physical performance. And all of this to win a crown of leaves! How much more important, then, are the things we take on during Lent? We are training and preparing our souls for an eternity in Heaven with God, not for gold medals or accolades here on earth. Do we approach Lent as something that we need to win right now, this year? Or as something that trains us and jumpstarts us for the rest of the year—and the rest of our lives? Do we find ourselves fasting from the same things every year because we couldn’t maintain virtuous habits once the Easter bells started to ring? Or have our old Lenten penances and prayers become so incorporated into our daily lives that we can build upon them with each new Lenten season?
Once I realized these things about Lent, all those times I “failed” in my Lenten practices didn’t seem so terrible anymore. I no longer want to “quit” Lent when I accidentally slip up on my penances or when I find myself giving in to temptation. If Lent is meant to jumpstart us on spiritual practices that we continue for months and years afterward, then we have to acknowledge and move past the stumbles and crashes when they come. Our failures to live up to our promises to God are still regrettable, certainly, but when we are in it for the long haul, our stumbles are also much more forgettable. St. Paul shows us that in “forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead” we must continue in our “pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.” We must acknowledge and repent of our broken pasts and our sinfulness, but we also must look with hope toward the future that Christ has made possible for us. If we allow ourselves to dwell too much on our failures, our concupiscence, our weakness as mortal men, then we can lose sight of the ultimate goal for which we strive: to be with Christ in Heaven. As Lent moves into Holy Week and Eastertide, let us strive to be like Paul’s well-disciplined athletes, winning the marathon of life by training our souls for the eternal prize of Jesus Christ.
For more resources to accompany you throughout the Lenten season, please click here.
Question for Reflection: How can you build on your Lenten practices throughout the liturgical year?
This upcoming summer, the Church will be celebrating World Youth Day in Kraków. The Church invites all of us, not just those pilgrims in Poland, to celebrate and participate in this great event. The Catholic Apostolate Center announced a few weeks ago that it will be partnering with the USCCB and the Archdiocese of Washington in a number of World Youth Day celebrations both here and abroad, including the event “Kraków in the Capital,” which celebrates World Youth Day stateside in Washington, D.C. As I was helping prepare for the celebration, I came across the fact that the body of Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati will be present for the World Youth Day celebrations in Kraków. I knew very little about this extraordinary young man and I decided that I needed to learn about him. I feel like my introduction to him was perfect timing. Much like Pier Giorgio, I have a great love for the outdoors and for sports. I will gladly spend hours watching games and discussing Sidney Crosby and my Pittsburgh Penguins, the New York Giants, and why the 1969 Mets were the greatest World Series team. Some of my fondest memories include hiking in the Scottish Highlands, climbing mountains in the Adirondacks, and backpacking in New Mexico. I've always regarded these as great activities, but found it challenging to incorporate them into my spiritual life. I knew that being in nature connected me closer to God, but did not know how that could affect my spiritual journey. This young man showed me how.
Pier Giorgio Frassati was born to a prominent family in Torino, Italy on April 6, 1901. His father was the founder of the La Stampa national newspaper (which is still in print today) and was very active in national politics as a member of left wing parties. Growing up, Pier Giorgio took an active role in his life of faith and developed a deep spiritual life. He could often be found praying before the Blessed Sacrament and reflecting on the Beatitudes. During World War I, he served the sick and helped servicemen reintegrate back into society. Like his father, Pier Giorgio got involved with politics but joined the People's Party, which was based on Rerum Novarum and Catholic Social Teaching. He would often be found climbing mountains, going to the theater and to the opera, but never let these pastimes interrupt his service to the poor and the outcast. He would be seen giving bread and sometimes his own clothing to the beggars in the streets. While still a young man, Pier Giorgio was photographed climbing a mountain. He signed the photograph 'Verso L'Alto', which means 'Go to the Heights'. This would serve as his personal motto and means more than simply mountain climbing. It is also a figure speech referring to the climb towards Christ. Pier Giorgio felt that he was drawn to the heights of the Beatitudes and to the Blessed Sacrament. He encouraged all those around him to also climb to these heights of the spiritual life.
Pier Giorgio's family disapproved of his activities and of his faith. They could not understand Pier Giorgio's passion for the poor and for the spiritual life. As he grew older, he grew deeper in his devotion and eventually joined the Third Order of Saint Dominic (Lay Dominicans) in 1922. Before graduating from university, Pier Giorgio contracted a very aggressive form of polio and grew extremely ill. It was during this short period that his grandmother passed away, drawing ire from his family because they felt that Pier Giorgio did not show enough grief for her death due to his own illness. On the night before Pier Giorgio himself passed away, he requested that his medication be given to a poor man he had been visiting. Pier Giorgio succumbed to his illness on July 24, 1925. His family expected very few people to come to his funeral, only some family and personal friends. When the family departed for the funeral, they were completely stunned to find the streets completely lined with thousands of people whom he had cared for. Simultaneously, the people lining the streets were shocked to find that he was from such a prominent family.
Pier Giorgio's legacy continued not only in Torino, but also throughout the world. While visiting Torino in 1989, Saint John Paul II made a pilgrimage to his tomb. A year later, on May 20th, Pier Giorgio Frassati was beatified in Saint Peter Square. His body was then moved from the family plot and reinterred in the Cathedral of Torino for pilgrims to visit. St. John Paul II said, "He (Frassati) testifies that holiness is possible for everyone". In researching his life, I have found encouragement from this great man. He shows us how to have zeal not only for life, but also for our faith. He gives us courage and inspiration. As I prepare for the World Youth Day celebrations, I look forward to diving deeper into the life and spirituality of Pier Giorgio.
Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, pray for us!