One of the kids in my First Communion Class asked me how many more days are left in Lent. When I answered that we are just about halfway through, there was a very loud, disappointed chorus of aaawwws from most of the class.
Right about now, are you saying “aaawww” as well? How’s Lent going for you? At the midpoint, it’s time to take our spiritual vital signs. Have you been keeping up with your promises of fasting, praying and almsgiving?
If you’re like me, you’re having moments of frustration, especially with fasting. When I’m feeling particularly stressed, and even when I’m not, I eat dark chocolate. I love dark chocolate; it’s creamy, not too sweet, and full of antioxidants and other good stuff proven to help calm frazzled nerves. The trouble is, I gave it up for Lent (against the advice of my family). In previous years, I have tried to fast from dark chocolate but negative outcomes, to use a sanitized medical phrase, prompted my husband and children to beg me to just eat it for the sake of family harmony. This year, I attempted it again and to date, I’ve been doing well, please God. There was an incident with some rocky road fudge and a couple of near misses but hey! I’m not perfect.
If the same old routine isn’t working, change it. This year, I resolved to approach Lenten sacrifice differently with prayer as my central discipline and everything else stemming from it. To many people that may seem obvious, but it’s taken me a bit longer to get to this point. I haven’t added more prayer in my day, other than to attend Stations of the Cross and Friday evening Mass with my family, but my attitude is different. I am more focused and deliberate with the resolution that quiet, relatively undistracted prayer is the most important part of my day no matter how busy I am.
I’m starting to finally understand that Lenten fasting is first and foremost spiritual; it isn’t just a physical exercise in denying my body something that will satisfy a mental and physical need. St. Peter Chrysologus puts it this way: “Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. So if you pray, fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petitions of others. If you do not close your ear to others, you open God’s ear to yourself.” Prayer is connected to fasting is connected to mercy: the three pillars of Lent. One is incomplete without the other.
When I feel the urge to reach for a piece of chocolate, I’m finding it easier to contemplate the face of our crucified Christ and then my craving doesn’t seem so important. Jesus’ bloodied and beaten face gazing back at me reminds me that fasting is penitential and has great power to save souls. The comfort I would have found in a piece of candy, I instead seek in prayer. The money I would have spent on my chocolate habit is better spent where it will do more good.
The most important lesson I’ve learned thus far in this Lenten season is not that I can stay away from Godiva Dark Chocolate Truffles, but that through the three pillars of Lent, I am drawn into a deeper relationship with Jesus. The best weapon in fighting the temptation to indulge is frequent, on-my-knees prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. That’s where I am given the grace and strength to keep going and the realization that sheer determination to resist those urges is not enough. Placing everything—sacrifices, weakness, temptation—at the foot of the Cross, and then standing there myself, is the only answer.
Keeping Lenten promises, especially fasting, is tough; it ought to be tough, but reasonable and challenging. It’s good to discipline our bodies as a reminder that our physical urges do not control us; and it’s good to die to ourselves to make room for Christ. It can also be a refining lesson in humility when we admit that we are failing in our promises. We can recognize our weakness and carry on, not taking ourselves too seriously and picking ourselves up when we fall.
If, like me, you’ve stumbled along the way this Lent, please don’t lose heart. We’re halfway through; there’s still plenty of time to recover. Yes, it can be painful, “but dedication is seen in pain,” wrote the Servant of God, Catherine Doherty. With God’s grace, work through it to reach the goal of being united with the sufferings of Christ. In so doing, we become rich in mercy and compassion and the joy of the Resurrection will be even more sweet. It might even taste like dark chocolate.