I don’t mean that question in the colloquial sense—as in, how are you today? This is a rather deeper question: as we move through the journey of Lent, how are you doing? Have you determined a Lenten practice—and kept practicing it?
It’s a good idea to pause and take stock of where we are as we travel through Lent. Too often it’s tempting to simply put aside a practice or discipline that we haven’t been following consistently. “Oh, gosh, I didn’t do XYZ after the first week, it’s all ruined, I’ll do it next year instead.”
I know a man who has great talent and great ambitions, but he doesn’t get things accomplished because if he can’t do them up to his very high standards, he doesn’t want to do them at all. This is apparent in his career, but it also shows up in everyday life. His office is filled with piles of paper because he hasn’t been able to organize his perfect filing system yet. His furniture is falling apart because he hasn’t yet decided on the perfect living-room set to purchase. He can’t cook because he doesn’t have the perfect kitchen. His need for everything to be just right keeps anything from being right enough.
God doesn’t need us to be “just right,” though it’s something we can—and should—strive toward. What God does want from us is to do the best we can do in the situations we’re given. Sometimes our best intentions are overwhelmed by circumstances. When that happens, we have a choice: we can give up, or we can roll with it and get our boats back on course.
My intentions certainly got sidelined this Lent: despite my best efforts to stay healthy, I got the flu and spent four days in bed and two additional weeks before and after feeling pretty awful. I looked miserably at the pile of Lenten reading I’d selected; I wasn’t able to read for more than 10 minutes at a time. I thought about the extra time I’d allotted to sit in church; I couldn’t even leave my apartment.
I couldn’t do everything; but I could do something. So I sat in bed and offered up my illness for those who needed help with their Lenten practices. I prayed. I kept my Rosary near to hand as a reminder of God’s presence when I awoke. It wasn’t “just right,” but it was “right enough.”
You don’t have to be sick to have your best intentions derailed. Schedules change. Unexpected things happen. Sometimes we’re just more weary and less inspired than we’d like to be. But we can still offer up something this Lent.
I’d like to suggest taking a few minutes for self-examination—stock-taking, if you will—as to how your Lent is going. And I’d like to suggest a tool for doing it: St. Ignatius’ pattern of self-examination known as the examen. Ignatius counsels that it be performed at the end of each day, but there’s no reason why it cannot be employed to do a spiritual check-in as we move through Lent.
The process has five steps:
- Become aware of God’s presence.
- Review the day with gratitude.
- Pay attention to your emotions.
- Choose one feature of the day and pray from it.
- Look toward tomorrow.
So how can you adapt it for a Lenten check-in?
- Start the way Ignatius starts: quiet yourself, take some deep breaths, shake off all the thoughts crowding your brain, and focus on being in the presence of God.
- Now take a look at what Lent has been like for you so far. When and where have you felt closest to God? Which of the practices you selected are working, and which aren’t? Have you developed any insights this Lent?
- Pay attention to what you’re feeling, and remember that feelings are just that—emotions, not reality. If you feel you’ve failed in your practices, try and understand you’re looking at a feeling, not a judgment.
- What one thing has either worked well, or hasn’t worked at all? Focus on that, and pray with it. Thank God for insights, a deepening of your relationship, Alternately, examine whether you really were called to this particular practice this Lent.
- Finally, decide how you want the rest of your Lenten journey to unfold. Do you want to reaffirm the devotions and practices you’ve decided upon? Have circumstances made them unfeasible? How can you change and adapt your goals to your new situation or insights?
Penance is a part of Lent; but Lent itself does not constitute a penance. It is an opportunity to grow and deepen our relationship with God while journeying through the story of our salvation. Don’t let your need to “do Lent right” get in the way of its true meaning and purpose; keeping Christ at the center of everything you do and say will be a better guide through the season than any one practice any of us could devise.
by Jeannette de Beauvoir
Ready to explore more of how Ignatian spirituality can help you keep Christ at the center for you? Check out Awakening Love: An Ignatian Retreat with the Song of Songs