In Lent, we make an extra effort to decrease our selfishness and allow Christ’s generosity to increase in us. Too often, we see Lenten penances as a “renovation project” to update who we are into someone kinder, calmer, and, well, different than we are now.
In his book, Freedom from Sinful Thoughts, J. Heinrich Arnold writes something that brought me up short. “[Being] poor in spirit,” he writes, “means readying ourselves for God as we truly are…rather than ‘fixing ourselves up for him.’” Hmmm. That means I give the control of my growth in virtue to God instead of being in charge of it myself.
So, is “fixing ourselves up” bad? Aren’t we supposed to be shedding our bad habits of sin (vice) and replacing them with good habits of virtue? Doesn’t that take effort on our part?
What we’re aiming at
Yes, but sometimes we treat growth in virtue like a construction project with ourselves as foreman. Shoring up a weak foundation here, plastering over some cracks there. Maybe what Arnold means is that renovation work is good, but we also need to keep track of who the real foreman is. I am God’s project — it’s only for me to say, “Yes” and follow his lead.
Here’s how Father John Langlois, OP, defines the purpose of our Lenten “project”: “Lent is a special penitential season when we mourn our sins and seek to draw closer to the Lord as we prepare for the great feast of Easter. To take on a special penance…[expresses] regret for past sins and…a desire for conversion. It is also a way of detaching ourselves from material…consolations to grow in desire for God and things of the Spirit.”
Lenten renovation project
If you’re still deciding what “renovation project” you’ll concentrate on to draw closer to God, consider two ideas:
The first is from Father Langlois, who describes a penance that’s been especially fruitful for him. “Rather than choosing a penance for yourself, allow God to choose a daily penance for you and then say ‘yes’ to that!…[A]ccept the daily inconveniences, trials, disappointments, and frustrations that come your way without…complaint…[I]f you wholeheartedly embrace this form of penance you will find yourself in a true battle with your rebellious self….”
That reminds me of something Servant of God John Hardon, S.J., said: “If you want to be holy, stop complaining.” Give up complaining for Lent? Are we up for that challenge? :)
The second idea is from Father Bill Wadsworth, who suggests giving up “a sin that you are good at….a favorite sin that we just love to commit.” Think gossip or procrastination. He adds, “It probably will be really hard, but that’s a good thing!” I’m assuming Father Bill has tried this for 40 days and survived.
Don’t leave the foreman out
So, are we supposed to be “fixing ourselves up” during Lent or “accepting ourselves as we are”? Yes and yes. Both/and. Arnold writes that we need to avoid thoughts that lead to our bad habits, but not to get anxious in the process.
Because trying to heal ourselves by ourselves will make us anxious. Believing that God won’t love us if bad habits still cling to us would make it all about us. And that’s when anxiety can set in. But it’s not about us. It’s about openness to God’s healing mercy.
It requires honesty and humility to “ready ourselves for God as we truly are,” because half the battle is naming the habit that needs healing! The other half is allowing God to do his work in us, even if that involves the pain of God “knocking down a wall” when he removes a habit, like complaining, that we’ve used for support and then, little by little, shows us how to stand firm in freedom without it.
Psalm 23 asks, “Who will climb the mountain of the Lord? Who will stand in his holy place? The one who is innocent of wrongdoing and pure of heart….” Jesus is the only one who fits that description. But luckily, we’re members of his body. In renovating the house of our soul, he’s the foreman. If we stick with him and do our part, he will renovate us into himself. He will guide us up the mountain of the Lord if we hold his hand.
Arnold sums it up this way: “this is the root of grace: the dismantling of our power.” That is, in releasing our small, willful power, we gain the infinite power of God to love and be loved. May we all discover more of that power in the remaining weeks of Lent.
P.S. Scroll down and leave a comment to share other Lenten ideas that have been fruitful for you!