How to Fail at Lent

Lent is a time of repentance. It is a season of ashes and sackcloth, confession and self-loathing - the holy kind. It is a time to willingly embrace one’s cross and walk the path to Calvary with Jesus, feeling the love and mercy of God behind every sorrow. Comfort and opulence have no place in these treacherous times. For forty-plus days, the only appropriate posture is a constant beating of the chest, Mea Maxima Culpa the only acceptable mantra. The goal, of course, is to fall deeper in love with the Saviour of the world and to resolve never to sin again. 

There are so many resources that help Catholics the world over to go through Lent “the right way”. Hallow had the #Pray40 challenge. Ascension Press has books, parishes have retreats and almsgiving opportunities. There seems to be nothing out there that details the very simple steps on how to do Lent the wrong way. And so, as someone who has failed at Lent yet again, I feel it is only fair to share this valuable information, in case someone else finds it useful. Follow the simple steps below for the most unfruitful spiritual experience of the year. Bonus points if you find creative ways to repeat said steps every year. 

1. Think of Lent only as a season

Before embarking on this long, mind-numbingly dull portion of the Catholic calendar, ensure you are in the right frame of mind to achieve peak failure. The person who wants to gain fruit from the Lenten experience prepares for a lifelong change in their behaviour. Such a one aims to make the three pillars of Lent - prayer, fasting and almsgiving - a part of their daily life. Not so with the one who is geared for failure. To achieve this goal, make sure you think of Lent as only a season of your life, and not a permanent change. Tell yourself - explicitly or otherwise - that it is a hiatus from the demands of life. In this way, the thought of living a sacrificial life becomes slightly more bearable. 

2. Make feel-good sacrifices

Now that you’re aware of the shortness of your time in suffering, think of small things you can bear to “give up” for a limited time. Create a list of all the little comforts you enjoy, and next to each item, write down the benefits of doing so. For example, giving up chocolate for forty days may improve your skin. Going on one meal a day will ensure that your favourite outfit looks good on you just in time for the Easter Vigil. Switching off YouTube and Instagram will give you a much-needed break. Going to daily Mass will finally score you some points with your church community (and maybe add to your steps if you’re walking). Helping out at the soup kitchen will give you a nice release of serotonin because frankly, who doesn’t like to see and help people who have it worse in life?

3. Say your prayers

You don’t necessarily have to mean them; remember, this is only for a season, not a lifetime. The nice thing about this step is that you get to participate in a deeply spiritual activity without actually becoming vulnerable. Whatever you do, and no matter how crappy you feel about your lukewarm approach to faith - and you will feel very crappy - don’t talk to God about it. It may slip out once or twice in a rare moment of intimacy with Him, but make every effort to dismiss the thought immediately and definitely don’t listen for His response. Your mind is pretty good at coming up with distractions, but if you’re struggling, just channel your thoughts toward your feel-good sacrifices. For advanced failure, give up the sacrifices altogether and just have at it - the chocolate, the food, the extra sleep in place of Mass - all of it. Dopamine is faster than serotonin anyways. 

4. Shut yourself in

This is the most challenging step. You will be caught between shame for your inadequacy and resentment of the constant, unwavering invitation to accept God’s love. You will feel every ache like a paper cut to your already-bleeding conscience. It will be hell, and you won’t see a way out. That’s the point. Allow yourself to sink deeper into this state, and whenever God shouts for your attention - through friends reaching out, a good thing happening, or something beautiful you hadn’t noticed before - turn your back resolutely away from Him without so much as a word. Here, you will begin to feel a heaviness in your heart that quite literally weighs you down. Accept it. This is how you stay grounded. But the failure doesn’t end here. There is one final step.

5 Succumb to despair

You have made it this far. Congratulations. You are now faced with the final decision. God doesn’t stop calling you, yearning for you, begging you to return to Him. But at this point, you’ve had so much practice rejecting Him that you’re practically indifferent to the invitation. Every time you’ve said no or chosen to do wrong, you were inching further away from Him, and now that yelling He does is barely a whisper. You can ignore it much easier now. Crowd your thoughts with everything but repentance. Tell yourself you’re doomed anyway, so why bother? Bury your one talent and go about your business. The Master is a cruel man who reaps where He hath not sown, so don’t exert yourself.

It is here that I must now out myself. I couldn’t go through with this crucial final step. I was doing so well - that is, following all the steps for failing at Lent - until I reached the final step. Silly me went to confession and then received communion, on Divine Mercy Sunday of all days! Big mistake. Huge! I felt the total forgiveness that Jesus promised St Faustina. There was no heaviness in my heart anymore. My conscience stopped bleeding. It was as though the 999 papercuts I gave myself had no effect. I wanted to hear God’s voice again. The poisonous vapour of despair suddenly disappeared, replaced by the sweet scent of love.

The steps for failure are here, should you need them for next year. I’m not sure I will. And - dare I say it - I hope you won’t either.  

17 April 2023