The perfect Lent usually comes to me as a surprise package, gift wrapped and delivered with a flourish and fireworks. It wears a big tag that says:
For your sanctification, with my deepest love and affection.
Your Heavenly Father
The truth of the matter is that regardless of what amazing mortifications I have planned for myself, I'm always outplayed by the challenges of life... the crosses... the hidden gifts. I never see those road bumps coming because I'm busy putting the comfortable touches on my own Lenten preparations.
When I go "big" with Lenten prep, I'm usually pretty impressed with myself. But the real secret of a fruitful Lent is what I do when my carefully designed, Pinterest-friendly disciplines are blown up and replaced by the uncontrollable and the downright ugly.
The real secret of Lent for me is not coming up with super creative, impressive ways to pull myself closer to the heart of Jesus... but learning how to use what I have been given to fall in love, embrace my crosses... and allow Him to draw me to Himself.
I once had a very wise and holy friend counsel me during a difficult time. I was feeling helpless that I did not have more to offer for a loved one who was undergoing a great trial...
Perhaps, I said, I should ask God to send me a greater suffering so that I might offer it. With a gentle smile, she responded: Don't ask for more. Not now. When your loving Father sees fit to give you more, He will do it because He knows your heart. And what He allows will be more than you would ever have the courage to ask for. Pray for grace and mercy and faithfulness and trust... the suffering will come in His time, when you are ready.
I was in my 20's at the time. I'm now 41. I get it now. The opportunities to suffer are always present. It is not really our job to make sure those sufferings keep coming, but to focus on drawing close to Christ through every opportunity.
Lent is a training ground. Giving up the cookie is just preparation for the bigger battles.
I have learned over time that God uses Lent efficiently if we let Him, whether or not we accomplish any exceptional self-imposed mortifications or clever crafts with the kids. Those are good practices and habits but they don't necessarily move the soul where God desires it to go. Many of us don't have the courage to push ourselves into life changing self-denial.
We line up the sacrifices and then BOOM! Derailed by the cookie.
There have been Lents during which he has permitted very obvious sufferings in my family like car accidents, broken bones, family stress, a difficult pregnancy, or serious illness. Other Lents were not so obvious... just a floundering in a place of personal failure or the good old Winter blahs. Perhaps it is lazy of me, but I have stopped focusing heavily on the extra mortifications during this season and have just been really focusing on the ones that I already have. There seem to be plenty enough for my weak soul. Someday. Someday I may be ready for more and I trust that He will know.
This year? I've got a short list of pious sacrifices and then a great big space where I assume God will work.
We are all in different spiritual places at different times. While you may be adding to your daily prayers, I am likely fighting just to maintain mine. When fasting might be relatively easy for one, it might be a source of great trial for another. While one mother is struggling to make Lent meaningful for her children in the daily household activities, another must accept the limitations of her cancer...
Where God chooses to take us during Lent is intensely personal and individual. The key is to embrace it wholly and willingly. Take me where you want me to go, Lord. Show me how to love you more.
A few years ago, I read a lengthy article criticizing the decision of two prominent Catholics to lead a Lenten retreat on a cruise. The crux of the argument was that a cruise is meant for luxury, not mortification, and the decision to lead others to water (as opposed to the desert) during the Lenten season was a very bad one.
I don't know... it seems to me that God can find our hearts on the open seas and pierce them the same as He would do on dry land.The beautiful surroundings can't keep out the fire of Divine Love. I do not know why the good men chose a cruise as a Lenten retreat venue and can see how it might seem odd. Perhaps they've lived through enough Lents to know that it will all work out just fine, for the greater glory of God and the sanctification of their souls. Perhaps they know, too, that leisure (according to a truly Christian understanding) is consistent with Lent in that it is ordered to bring our minds, bodies, and souls back into focus on the goodness of God.
Based on my personal experience of past Lents (and life in general), however, I would say that their likelihood of contracting some terrible stomach virus during the cruise is quite high. Or likely, they will hit some choppy seas, get paired up with a bunk mate that snores, or find that their sciatica is acting up. Or perhaps, they will be blessed with enough space and grace and time to come face to face with a deep and buried grief or interior suffering...
... because Lents often come packaged like that.
Some years I'm sent a rocky sea or spoiled shellfish. Other years, I find myself on a sinking ship. Other years it's just that stupid cookie. But always with a flourish and a bang and that handwritten note from God. And at the end of the note, it says...
P.S. I give you these gifts because I love you beyond all telling or imagining. Everything in the package is a treasure. You will not know how to use it at first.... but I will show you. Keep close to my heart. We will walk together through each moment. I will set your heart on fire. And when you feel that you cannot walk a moment longer, I will take your cross and raise you up with me. Easter is coming... Let us begin.
The secret of the perfect Lent is simply to rely more on the transformative power of the Holy Spirit than on our checklist. To walk slowly, humbly, quietly along the path of personal holiness; ready to die to self so as to be ready to rise with Him. Letting Him lead... Even when it hurts.
If that Lenten secret includes the carefully planned sacrifices you willing make? Thanks be to God. But it might also include some bad shellfish.... and that's often where the real sanctification happens.