By Olivia Bardella
My 8th grade Latin teacher, Ms. English, was a former nun. I don’t know her whole story about why she left the convent or whether she had professed her final vows, but I do remember two things about her. The first, she always had her long gray hair up in a messy bun at the top of her head that looked like a bird’s nest. And second, she once told our class something about Lent that has stuck with me ever since.
“Lent is like a coil,” she said. “It’s not a circle that just goes around and around, but a coil, or spring, that’s meant to draw us upward. The Church gives us this season to help us climb higher and grow closer to God every year.”
I probably can’t name for you the Latin declensions anymore, but what Ms. English said that day was one of the most important lessons she could’ve taught. Every Lent I think of this image and how to approach the season – not as a circular, flat drudgery but as an upward climbing path.
How many times have we ended Lent and gone right back to our old habits or haven’t sensed any spiritual growth? Instead of beginning and ending Lent in the same place we started, we’re called to walk these 40 days with Jesus in the desert to end up on higher ground. It might seem like we’re going in circles, but each time around we should strive to climb higher and higher.
If you’ve found yourself stuck in a rut this Lent, keep in mind the image of a coil and consider these three aspects of Lent that offer a good perspective on how to grow in this penitential season.
Lent animates our faith
The Lenten call to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving involves our whole being – body and soul. Our body-soul relationship means that what we do in the body affects our soul.
Fasting is one of those very real sacrifices that can’t be ignored. For me, fasting is difficult not only because I get “hangry” easily but also because it’s something I can’t just push to the side. I have to face it, struggle with it.
By connecting a bodily act, such as fasting, with a spiritual reality, we are able to more fully enter into our faith. St. Paul speaks of this in Romans 12:1 when he says, “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.”
Instead of just saying that we have a spiritual need for Christ, we can understand and encounter that need better through fasting. Just as the soul animates and gives life to the body, so do good works animate our faith. We are called to live our faith and there’s no better time to do so than during Lent.
Lent calls us to conversion
Our faith calls us to continual conversion and renewal of self. Again, St. Paul says in Romans 12:2, “...be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect,” (emphasis added).
The Church gives us Lent as a time to pause and look more deeply at where we are on our journey to Heaven and whether we are doing God’s will. Lent is not just about the outward signs, like ashes and abstinence, but about the inward change and conversion, too. It’s a time for an examination not just of our sins but of our lives and what we’re oriented toward. Are we facing sin and the world more than Christ, the sacraments, and Heaven?
On that first Easter, Mary Magdalene “turned round” twice to Jesus when He found her overcome with grief by the empty tomb (John 20:11-18). But only the second time she turned did Mary actually recognize Him.
Like Mary Magdalene, we must turn from sin, from pride, from whatever blinds us, to face Christ and His transformative grace. The 40 days of Lent give us a chance to re-orient ourselves and turn back to God, especially in the sacrament of Confession.
Lent unites us with Christ’s suffering
The beauty of the sacramentality of our Catholic faith is that as members of Christ’s body we are united to Him and His Church in a very real, very intimate way. Because of this union, our sacrifices and sufferings can be offered up for the redemption of souls and in reparation for sinners.
During Lent we’re asked to make sacrifices, to give something up. The purpose is not merely to empty ourselves, but to give of ourselves to another – Christ Himself. Each sacrifice we offer can be united to Christ and His ultimate sacrifice on the Cross.
Whenever we’re inconvenienced, suffering, doubting, fasting, we can take those moments as opportunities to think of Christ suffering and Christ crucified. If you’re tempted to break a fast, unite your hunger to Christ’s thirst as He hung on the Cross. If you’re doubting God’s presence, unite it to Christ’s plea: “‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Mark 15:34) If you find it difficult to be patient with those close to you, unite yourself to Christ, patient in His carrying of the Cross.
Every Lent instead of walking in circles with a stale faith, we should ask for the grace to grow truly closer to Christ. In this way, we can climb the path to Calvary with Christ, preparing to die to self and sin, and in all hope rise with Him, too.