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?
Helena Romano is an Editing Associate for the Catholic Apostolate Center.
I can recall from a very young age pondering what it means to be Catholic. We were supposed to somehow be different from secular society by the way we lived our lives, but how or why was that any different than simply being a good, kind, and moral human being? Can “normal” domestic life be holy? Why is the domestic church—the Christian family—so vitally important to our faith?
Throughout my life, this question has been answered in various ways and degrees. However, nothing has been so powerful as what I have witnessed in the past few months. In the late fall of last year, my mother-in-law underwent unexpected surgery and was unable to attend Mass. During our family’s Thanksgiving visits, I witnessed an incredible moment of our faith: my mother was able to distribute the Sacred Body of our Lord to my mother-in-law. Tears fell from my mother-in-law’s eyes as my husband, father, mother, and I encircled her, reciting prayers together in preparation for the distribution of the Eucharist. I was struck by the immensity of this moment: as I witnessed the woman who gave me life distribute the source of eternal life to the woman who gave my husband life, the depth and vital importance of the domestic church began to come into clearer focus for me.
The Christmas season would bring me another unexpected intersection of family and faith and another reminder of the significance of the domestic church. My father was hospitalized between Christmas and New Year’s; I found myself once again in the midst of a family circle of prayer as this time I witnessed my sister ministering the Sacred Body of our Lord to both my father and mother. My husband, nieces, nephew, brother-in-law, and I encircled my father’s hospital bed. Again, I found myself struck by the immensity of the moment unraveling before me; there is something very profound in witnessing the physical, tangible presence of Christ enter into vulnerable family space. I held these moments in my heart and in my mind, reflecting on them as the days rolled by between the holidays and the beginning of Lent.
This year, our parish announced that they are encouraging families to consecrate themselves to the Holy Family. Ah, the Holy Family, the perfect model of the domestic church! It is within the context of the family that we learn about our faith and see examples of faith lived out. Christ Himself was born into a family; it was a vital part of his plan of salvation.
We are each called to sainthood and each of our paths to sainthood will look a bit different. Lent is a beautiful time to really evaluate how close we are to following that path and what we can do in our lives to stay the course. No matter what path our calling leads us on, all paths lead back to the family—whether that be our own family by blood or our brothers and sisters in the faith.
How do we live out each day as a domestic church and bring that holy reverence to our everyday lives? We are called not only to love one another but to LIVE for one another. I witnessed this profoundly over the holidays when I saw different members of my family live for and serve one another. But there are also opportunities being presented throughout our everyday life to grow in holiness and spiritual maturity—especially now during this Lenten season. Lent is not only a time to deny ourselves of those things that keep us from our path to sainthood but also a time to invite the Holy Spirit to open our eyes and hearts to opportunities of everyday holiness and saintly domesticity. Christ wants to be a living presence in our homes and in our families, but we have to open the door for Him and invite Him in. I saw the effects of Christ’s presence in my family in those moments when He was brought physically to my parents and mother-in-law. Christ brings unity, service, strength, love. Just as in our physical lives we can manage the stresses and craziness of ever day life better when we fuel our body with proper nutrition and exercise, so too are we called to fuel our spirits and our family bonds with the Bread of the angels and on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.
What spiritual exercises can we work through together as a family this Lenten season? How can we work to call one another to a life of saintly domesticity?
For more resources to accompany you throughout your Lenten journey, please click here.
To learn more about Marriage and Family, please click here.