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Let’s be honest about Lent…

Sebastian Gomes

March 7, 2019
Palm branches are rapidly diminished to ashes outside of St. Bartholomew Church in Columbus, Indiana, on March 4, 2019. Parish leaders involve children in their ash-making process to help them understand the meaning of Lent. (CNS photo/Katie Rutter)
Palm branches are rapidly diminished to ashes outside of St. Bartholomew Church in Columbus, Indiana, on March 4, 2019. Parish leaders involve children in their ash-making process to help them understand the meaning of Lent. (CNS photo/Katie Rutter)

I used to feel anxious about Lent.

Christmas is my favourite season, and the interim period between it and Ash Wednesday always felt like a slow descent into darkness, austerity, and loneliness.
But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to really appreciate Lent for what it is: a recurring opportunity for redemption.
Those famous words of Pope Francis come to mind:

“[God] never tires of forgiving, but at times we get tired of asking for forgiveness.”

More than anything, Lent reminds us that “God never tires of forgiving.”
None of us is perfect; none of us has it all figured out. And it’s rather comforting to know that each year, no matter what has happened, an opportunity is provided for Christians to set things right, or at least to take the first steps back onto the right path.
I believe this new appreciation for Lent stems from a gradual spiritual awakening to my own limitations and weaknesses. Of course, that journey is far from over. But I’ve learned that progress in the spiritual life can only happen honestly.
Without honesty, progress is an illusion. And all of us human beings are, to one degree or another, illusionists.
Practicing illusion is one of the ways Christians participate in “worldliness,” to use another common expression of Pope Francis. It involves perpetuating an image of ourselves based on how we want others to perceive us: as relevant, intelligent, wealthy, powerful, our lives perfectly well-balanced and in control.
This self-created image is projected towards others, but it doesn’t begin there. It begins deep within each of us. The first and most important person we need to convince of our self-created image is ourselves. If the image is not believable to us, it won’t be believable to others.

Herein lies the great spiritual challenge of Lent: how do we be honest with ourselves about ourselves?

The first sign we are on the path to honesty is that we try to run away from it.
It’s difficult to be honest about our limitations and weaknesses, especially if our self-created image has taken root in ourselves and in those around us. We know intuitively that self-examination will be difficult; it may not be territory that we’ve ever explored before.
So we run. But we run because deep down we know how difficult and consequential an honest self-examination of our lives can be.
And yet, like all leaps forward in the spiritual life, letting go of fear and humbly embracing ourselves as we are almost immediately liberates our soul in new ways.

It’s a paradox: the more honest we are about ourselves, our weaknesses and limitations, the more liberated we become.

Still, it’s not enough to become aware of the paradox. Every step forward along the spiritual journey is a step deeper into honest self-examination, which will demand genuine conversion.
At a communal level, the past year has been one long “Lenten season” in the Catholic Church. The resurgence of the sexual abuse crisis has re-opened old wounds and inflicted new ones. We have witnessed new revelations of abuse, mismanagement, blunders in communication, vacuums of accountability, and an inexplicable lack of appreciation for the severity and complexity of the problem among some Church leaders.
We’ve also seen moments of personal conversion, like when Pope Francis admitted to “serious errors” in his assessment of the Chilean abuse crisis. (Read more about Pope Francis and the Chilean bishops here.)
And we’ve seen steps taken institutionally by the Vatican, like at the recent Vatican summit on the protection of minors. As highly astute commentators have pointed out, the summit was more about interior conversion than external policy. Both are essential for tackling the crisis, but when it comes to real progress, honest self-examination can be the higher hurdle.
All of these events of the past year remind us of our need for redemption, and that progress only happens honestly.
Luckily, Lent is here and “God never tires of forgiving.”

But we need to be honest about Lent.