We are one week into Lent and I am feeling less than penitential and saintly. In fact, it doesn’t seem that I have implemented much change or penance in my life. I decided to take on the standard penance of giving up sweets because sacrificing sugar-laden desserts and snacks is truly difficult for me and involves heroic effort on my part. Already I have broken this penance and partaken of a brownie or two.
Rather than wallow in discouragement, though, I am focusing on the deeper meaning of Lent and its purpose and objective – to become a holier and better person and to grow in love and unity with Christ – and asking myself, “How can I effectively work toward these goals?” Yes, sacrifice and penance are part of the process. However, holiness involves not only letting go of physical attachments and pleasures such as chocolate, but also releasing attitudes and dispositions which keep us from growing in our relationship with Christ. These include anger, unforgiveness, selfishness, and pride. One emotion I have particularly struggled with recently is anger, so I have begun to direct my thoughts and efforts toward reducing or eliminating this negative attitude which hinders my relationship with Christ and others.
Anger is like an anchor which weighs and holds us captive, trapped and stagnant, when we are meant to sail free on the ocean of life. What are some ways we can release the anger and set ourselves free? Psychologists suggest many ideas about letting go of anger and unforgiveness, including becoming aware of the negative emotions, writing about them, telling your story to another person, and performing a release ceremony. A few years ago, I decided to try an experiment which I had heard about, which was intended to help me move toward forgiveness in a certain area of my life. The endeavor was to write the name of someone who had hurt me deeply on a balloon, inflate it, and let it go. I performed the ceremony skeptically, but found that it truly did make a difference. The physical letting go of the balloon and watching it drift away into the sky was a cathartic action that symbolized my own cutting ties with the anger and beginning to experience genuine forgiveness. Although it has been a process, since then the memory of the betrayal has become considerably less painful and feelings of compassion and mercy for the person have begun to take hold.
Selfishness and pride are also stubborn sins which are challenging to root out of our lives. Like the weeds among the wheat, they are the residual effect of original sin, and they exist along with our gifts and virtues. It is up to us to take steps to oppose and uproot these vices from our hearts daily. The Lenten discipline of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are the remedies against vice that the Church prescribes to help us to conquer our evil inclinations and sins. They help us to deny ourselves and fight against temptations to put ourselves first and seek pleasure, power, and satisfaction at all costs.
When Jesus went into the desert to fast and pray for 40 days, he was tempted by the devil with three things: bread, power, and worldly recognition. We, too, are tempted by these attractive ideas when we set out to follow Christ and to put him first in our lives. Resisting these temptations, we demonstrate to Jesus our love and devotion to him and we gain strength to overcome those sins and faults we struggle with. Such small acts as resisting the treats we have given up for Lent, denying our own will to do the will of another, or performing some small act of charity that no one knows about are precious and valuable in the eyes of the Lord, who sees all and will reward us in his own way and time. We must have faith to believe that our Lenten sacrifices and penances – our “letting go” – will bear fruit for us in the future and help us to “let go” of much more than just the material things we are attached to.
Because we can’t do it alone, we can ask Jesus for the graces we need to have a holy and fruitful Lent and to resist those temptations when they come to us like they came to him in the desert. He will surely reach out and help us when we call on him and give us the graces we need to persevere. After the 40 days are up, we will rejoice with the Lord on Easter Sunday, purified, made more whole and holy, and stronger, experiencing the joy of the Resurrection and an increased union with the him. We can also hope to grow in the opposing virtues: love, forgiveness, unselfishness, and humility when we persevere through Lent and arrive victorious with him at Easter.