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Preparing for Lent: Seven Lessons the Flu Taught Me

By Jennifer Gregory Miller (bio - articles - email) | Feb 13, 2015

The beginning of Lent is less than a week away. These final days are the last bastion of celebration, but also time to strategize how we will spend this holy season. Unfortunately, my planning came to a halt last week when I was struck down by the flu. Mothers usually are not allowed even one sick day, but this mother required six sick days in bed to recover. I have had all sorts of posts planned, some partially drafted, but when you are stricken with headaches, brain fog and fatigue, all writing goes out the window.

After my weakened quarantined state, I realized my Lenten preparation was not all lost. In fact, this sickness gave me a better idea of how I should be approaching Lent. 

1) His Ways Keep Us Guessing:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9)

Sickness never comes at a good time, and mine was no exception. All outside commitments were canceled and the home routine was pared down to basic survival. Even though I didn't schedule this sickness, I had to recognize this was the best thing for me because it was God's plan.

While I'm contemplating my Lenten resolutions, I need to realize that God might have different ideas. The unfolding of His providence might throw a wrench in my seemingly best laid plans. So this Lent I will implement my resolutions and penances, but be ready to recognize when God makes other plans for me. I need to say yes to Him and let His plans take priority. 

2) Don't Be an Anxious Control Freak:

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on.... But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. (Matt. 6:25, 34)

The unexpected happens, and sickness is one of those unexpected life events. We all can get sick. I can help boost my immunity, but when I did succumb to illness, how did I act when I got sick? Did I accept it grudgingly? Did I get angry? Did I give into anxiety because of everything that wasn't being done? Or did I thank God for His blessing and place my trust and confidence in Him?

Sickness is a reminder to be open and vulnerable to His love, to surrender my trust to God and cooperate with Grace. I have to allow myself to expose and admit my weaknesses. I need Him and cannot accomplish anything (including the Lenten journey) without His grace. I will put all my cares, concerns and Lenten resolutions into His hands.

3) His grace Is Always More Than Enough:

"My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong!" (2 Cor 12:9-10)

During all the different crosses in life, like battling fever and aches of the flu, I have to remember that I do not bear it alone. And God never gives us a cross without providing the grace to bear it. 

Lent is not about me choosing a penance for self-conquest. It's not to earn bragging rights on my personal triumphs. Any interior growth is accomplished only through His grace. Only with Christ can I triumph over my weaknesses and faults.

4) Time Alone with God:

But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you (Matt 6:6).

When I was alone in the sickroom recovering, the isolation did help to remove distractions. It was easier to come face-to-face with God, even while wracked with pain, because there weren't other interruptions. I was alone with God.

We can't remove ourselves from the world to live a monastic life during Lent. Normal life continues. But we can find ways to trim the fat: eliminate the extra outside social commitments; turn off the noise of TV and music and other electronics; and reduce the social media. The less outside distraction makes it easier to turn into our "inner room" to be alone and converse with God. It's hard in our busy, loud lives, but Lent can be a time to make it a priority to be alone with God.

5) Not For Public Display:

Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father. When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you. (Matt 6:1-4).

My illness brought isolation. I was very alone, partially to keep the germs from spreading to the other family members, but also recovery requires rest. While people care, no one really wants to hear all the gory details of the sickness and recovery. This was my private and personal struggle.

In the same way, our spiritual life during Lent is not a group activity or for public display. Our choices for fasting, praying and almsgiving are completely personal. It should be between us and God. We don't need to list (or even brag) about the difficult penances we have planned. I'm not supposed to be wearing badges with my "accomplishments." We do not need other people's praise in our progress. Our Lenten journey is between God and us.

6) Detaching Ourselves

Jesus said to him, "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus said to his disciples, "Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God" (Matt 19:21-24).

During the flu's worst days, nothing could make me feel better. I found little consolation in creature comforts. Food, even dessert, wasn't appetizing, TV and computer encouraged eye pain and headaches. I had little interest in social media. All the little pleasures in life no longer gave any joy.

Lent is a reminder that we shouldn't try to find consolation in material things. Only in God will we find true peace and joy. Denying myself some of those creature comforts this Lent might help in detaching myself. Little mortifications of innocent pleasures add up to the larger goal of only finding consolation in Christ.

7) A Little Help From (and For) My Friends:

I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:34-35)

Despite being alone in my sick bed, I could not have recovered as easily without the charity of my family and friends. My husband took care of all the dinner meals and kept the household running smoothly (In fact, the kitchen looked better than when I usually clean it.). My sons kept the noise down and were quick to help around the house and run little errands for their sick mother. My mother and sister ran some errands for needed items like soup, and unnecessary items like a thoughtful and appreciated cup of coffee. I had loving get-well prayers from many.

We are not supposed to live in isolation, as we are all connected with Christ through His Mystical Body. We are brothers and sisters in Christ. This family relationship needs to be nurtured with charity. I need to reach out and love my neighbor. This is the almsgiving part of Lent. But there are also times when we are the helpless ones that provide that opportunity for others to practice charity and Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy. Charity needs to flow both ways, as sometimes we are the giver and sometimes the recipient.

In spite of, or dare I say because of the flu, I feel a little better prepared mentally to begin the spiritual journey of Lent. These little thoughts were nothing earth shattering, nor anything new, but they are a little clarification in understanding how Lent is much more than just "giving up" something. May your personal spiritual journey bring you closer to Christ.

Jennifer Gregory Miller is an experienced homemaker, home schooler, and authority on living the liturgical year. She is the primary developer of CatholicCulture.org's liturgical year section. See full bio.

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