Kickstart your Lenten resolutions with this hack

March 13, 2023 in News

I realised, from recently speaking to a few friends, that some people were able to give up things for Lent, but others were failing and tempted to give up completely. Sometimes there were very worthy desires to give up something difficult, test themselves, try to lose weight as a side-line or be a better person. Generally, people were keen to do something for Lent and had normally accepted the traditional ‘give up something’ model. This was fine as far as it went, but the nagging question often was ‘Is this helping me get closer to God and making a significant difference in my faith life?’

I was reflecting that sometimes these great efforts of our own will to give up things and penitential practices don’t go very far and often merely reflect our own efforts or personal will power. People appear to interpret the prophet Amos’ words as “what I want is sacrifice not love”, often the opposite of what was intended. Sometimes failing can be a good thing as we realise our limits and our need for God. Accordingly, can we imagine what it would be like to engage God in this struggle to have a meaningful Lent?

If we look at St Ignatius Loyola, he was famous for his initial ascetical practices and extreme disciplines. However, this is not the full story. After a significant vision, Ignatius abandoned severe fasting and harsh penitential practices, and embraced a more balanced lifestyle. His main insight was to let go of his own plans and efforts, and instead try to be flexible and adapt his way of being to what God wanted. Often, we want to control and limit God’s action, creating resistance to letting God in and only partially experiencing any transformation.

Ignatius used reflection on experience to review what was working on his journey to God. So harsh penitential practices or experiences or even failures were seen as learning experiences. For example, he noticed that throwing himself into prayer and staying up all night left him unable to study or work properly the following day. Reflection showed that overindulging in these apparently ‘good things’ sometimes led him to a ‘bad’ place. As a result he began to modify his extreme behaviour and found more peace and consolation in a more moderate path.

Also, over time he noticed his tendency to begin penitential practices without involving God in them; the human tendency is to fix on something immediate and appealing to the ego, but which may not have the desired effect to become closer to God. He developed his discernment process accordingly, checking that things were good (of God) all the way through meant checking in continually by reflecting and reviewing with God the ‘movements of the spirits’ within him. Amazingly he was able to detect ‘good movements’ that led to an increase of faith, hope and love (i.e., consolation) and also ‘bad movements’ that led to the opposite (i.e., desolation).

Applying this to our Lenten resolutions or even failures can be a helpful way of kickstarting our Lent and getting closer to what God wants. This means creating a space to reflect on where we are, taking some time to look at how we feel about what is happening with our Lenten efforts, and being open to new options. There are probably three main places we find ourselves:

  1. Our Lenten goals are sound; we are living close to God and feeling lots of consolation (i.e., Ignatius says consolation is like water on a sponge; there is harmony and congruence; no need to do anything but live in God’s love).
  2. I am achieving my goals but it is largely my own efforts and there is some hidden desolation, e.g., I am feeling pride or a sense of achievement and congratulating myself (Ignatius says that desolation is like water falling on a stone; there is disharmony and a mismatch; but it is an invitation to reflection and learning).
  3. I am failing or unhappy with my efforts for Lent and feel like giving up or have already done so; again this is experienced as a sense of desolation (Ignatius says that to combat desolation we must do the opposite of what it suggests; activity instead of passivity, considering options instead of closing down, and starting again instead of giving up).

The good news is that hidden within desolation is a paradoxical invitation to let God in; it does demand courage and perseverance, but it is an invitation to ‘turn around’ or redo things, precisely what Lent is about. So don’t give up or think that it’s a waste of time; rather turn it into a prayer (‘Into your hands I commend my spirit’), trust that God is there and inviting us to a new start.

Letting go is always tough as is acknowledging that we are weak, humble, and vulnerable; in need of saving help and guidance. A lot of spiritual wisdom is about letting go of control and ‘handing over’ or living in the reality of being a dependent and needy creature. Despite what the surrounding culture says about being a ‘free agent’, our true identity is in God as ‘works of art’ or ‘instruments’.

This shift of mindset doesn’t come easy and needs a lot of going against the mainstream ‘being in control’ and being independent. However, there is real joy in letting go and being open to a bigger plan; it does mean trusting in the transformational experiences of God’s grace. It doesn’t mean we drop penitential practices altogether, rather they are secondary to the goal of finding God, being in relationship and taking guidance.

Central to all this is prayer understood as a conversation with God, having both asking/petitioning and listening. Listening and finding God’s will is hard and often needs other supports, a spiritual guide, a faith community and a discernment process. The challenge is to put our resources, will and heart at the service of God. Remember that the goal of prayer is not just to worship or adore but to do the will of God – to be a disciple and a follower, to put it into practice. Try this exercise:

  1. Take some time out and try to get a quiet place for 10-20 minutes to reflect on your experience of Lent.
  2. Ask for what you want; known as ‘asking for a grace’, it gets you in touch with your desire. Try something simple like, “help me understand what You would like to do for Lent”, “help me be still within and listen”, or “give me a chance to start again”.
  3. Begin a conversation with God, try to listen to what is being said to you as well as speaking (a two-way dialogue).
  4. Consciously put your own plans to one side, recognising their limitations.
  5. Be open to new ideas that maybe you haven’t considered or are under your nose.
  6. Commit yourself to a new path with God’s help (“not my will but your will be done”).
  7. Afterwards, reflect on how doing this exercise has made you feel: closer to God or not?