Facing Lent Head On

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 21, 2012

Lent is or ought to be the time of year when we stop blaming everybody else for all that is wrong with the Church and start blaming ourselves. It is a time in which we ought to realize that if grace has been lacking or has failed to produce the results we would ordinarily expect, this is most importantly because of me. Indeed, whatever we may say in other seasons of the year, in Lent there is only one kind of Catholic: A lax Catholic.

One supposes, of course, that there are different kinds of laxity. For example, many do not take their Catholicism very seriously because they do not care sufficiently about spiritual growth or moral virtue. Their general self-satisfaction prevents them from realizing how much they ought to love God. If, in an initial Lenten reflection, they realize that this inattentiveness to God is a problem, then their chief task is to deliberately and systematically seek from God Himself a greater awareness of His presence and a greater zeal for his holy will. In this way, they diminish their own self-love and learn to depend more on God alone.

Or, to take another example, there are certainly those who take their Catholicism very seriously. They notice with sadness how few in the Church share this seriousness of Catholic purpose. They ardently desire holy bishops, faithful universities, renewed religious orders, orthodox religious instruction, spiritual priests, superior liturgy, and vibrant parishes. Unfortunately, the self-satisfaction they find in these noble desires prevents them from realizing how much more they themselves ought to love God than they do. And should they recognize this self-satisfaction in an initial Lenten reflection, they will find their task matches exactly the task of their lax neighbors.

Moreover, by some deep and infallible law of spirituality, even those who are experienced in the deceits of self-love, and so are careful to distrust their own self-satisfaction, find themselves faced with the same problem. As they begin Lent each year, they already know they fail to realize how much more they ought to love God than they do. And so they make it their chief task to deliberately and systematically seek from God Himself a greater awareness of His presence and a greater zeal for his holy will. In this way, they diminish their own self-love and learn to depend more on God alone.

Now not only must we necessarily fall into one of these repetitive categories, in fact we cannot escape falling by turns into each of them. Even if we are making some spiritual progress, that fact alone guarantees that we will by degrees see ourselves more clearly, and so continually recognize new ways in which we habitually exclude God by failing to open some tendency or habit to His grace. Even if we are more blind than perverse, we see again and again what rank amateurs we remain on the path to union with God!

So too each one of us, whether theoretically interested in holiness or not, falls not infrequently into indignation or self-righteousness, at least in unguarded moments, focusing microscopically on the shortcomings of others or “the problems of the Church”. How often do we prefer, as we might as well admit, to whitewash our own tombs! I know my readers will find it almost impossible to believe, but I realized halfway through the first draft of this essay that I had twisted a portion of it to call attention to the shortcomings of certain “other people” who make things so much more difficult for “the rest of us”.

This self-discovery is frustrating, but it further convinces me that we may safely disregard, during Lent, our favorite prescriptions for the renewal of the Church and the world, along with our favorite targets for that renewal, in favor of that most salutary Lenten practice of pointing the proverbial finger at ourselves.

Still, as we begin Lent, there is one thing of which we may all be certain. Whatever our station in the Church; however well-known our ability to diagnose the spiritual failures that beset us on every side; whether we are regarded by others as prophets or as fools; and no matter how much or how little we think we have sinned: In all cases, we absolutely must choose one of two prayers with which to inaugurate Lent. This option is given by Christ Himself, as recorded in the eighteenth chapter of Saint Luke’s gospel. Either we choose to say, “God, I thank thee that I am not like other men” or “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”

The problem, of course, is that I really do thank God I am not like others, and so do you. We do it a hundred times a day in our seemingly bottomless capacity for self-love. It colors every judgment we make and a great many of our public comments as well. Our natural human instincts run strongly and continually along the lines of the first prayer. We bear witness to it effortlessly! In contrast, it is only through a conscious, deliberate, and strenuous choice that we can begin with the second prayer.

If our Lent is a serious one, we will even feel at times that the second prayer is dishonest. We will find ourselves giving it the lie in our thoughts, words and deeds. As we pray, sacrifice and examine ourselves, we will instead continually run across the first prayer, settled in the oddly comfortable corners of our lives. We will have to learn, again and again, to see ourselves as God sees us, and so learn without the slightest possibility of doubt that we have far more in common with all the others than we do with Him. For it is the first prayer that is the lie. We are all distressingly alike. And that is why we are right to trust not in ourselves, but in the infinite mercy of God.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: radhika.doraiswamy9994 - Feb. 22, 2012 11:24 PM ET USA

    Thank you for this. It woke me up.

  • Posted by: wolfdavef3415 - Feb. 21, 2012 7:40 PM ET USA

    Excellent reflection Dr. Mirus. I will be sure to hit the tip jar Friday so I can read more of these.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Feb. 21, 2012 6:13 PM ET USA

    A fair shot, to be sure, Dr Mirus, however, hopefully, not a "mortal" one for most of us. But only the individual reader can discern that; and let that discernment be a careful one.