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Here we are, at Lent once again. Lent: that oh-so-Catholic time of year for practicing the art of sacrifice; not to perfect it, but to be perfected by it. For 40 days we are encouraged to lay aside every encumbrance to our faith, and take up the ancient disciplines that mark the true disciples of Christ. And for 40 days, we suffer the stuff we're made of -- and not made of.
Lents come and Lents go. But while the season may be pretty much the same, my annual experience of it isn't. There are years I manage to live Lent much more deeply than others. And there are years it has felt as if I've hardly lived it at all. I don't want this year to be one of those. This year, I want to experience Easter as a promise kept, as the answer to the deepest longings I've rediscovered. This year, I want to be fully prepared to renew the vows of my baptism. I want to walk out of the Easter Vigil Mass completely empowered for a life of total immersion. The question is, "How?"
The answer, I think, is to stop trying to do Lent and start trying to live it. And by live it, I mean letting God live it in me. Maybe I'm finally old enough or honest enough to admit that I can't live the Christian life after all. Only Christ can; it is his life and not mine, after all.
The glory of these 40 days is often best experienced face down in the dirt. Everything I've ever decided to do for Lent has ended up giving me a good solid dose of humility. I'm not sure I've ever managed to maintain even the simplest practice for all 40 days. But if the Lenten hallmarks of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving teach us anything about our faith, it is that we are completely dependent on God.
The funny thing is that God likes it that way. He loves it when we trust him, when we rely on him, when we look to him for help. God loves it when we get a glimpse of ourselves the way he sees and knows us to be: noble, but small; determined, but weak; well-intentioned, but not always up to the task. Still, he calls us to undertake it anyway. He knows that those who answer the call instead of resisting it might just find the caller even more irresistible. Those who are willing to serve, might begin to get an inkling of how deeply they have been served by the Lord who continually comes to us as the servant of all.
I already know a few things about how I will spend Lent this year. Whatever I fast from in these next 40 days will be nothing in comparison to all I have consumed. Whatever time I spend in prayer will be little when weighed against all the time I have wasted. Whatever I manage to give will be far less than I have been given or taken along the way. But God will value each little effort as if it was a jewel. He will notice -- even cherish -- my smallest attempts.
St. Francis de Sales, my very favorite spiritual guide, had some great advice about Lent. "Lent is the autumn of the spiritual life" he wrote, "the time during which we gather fruit to keep us going for the rest of the year ... I am accustomed to say that we will not spend Lent well unless we are determined to make the most of it. Let us, therefore, spend this Lent as if it were our last, and we will make it well" (Letters 329).
Someday, the Lent we're living will, in fact, be our last. We may not be given the grace to know that it is. It may even be this year's. And that is how I intend to treat it.
Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a wife and mother of eight children, and a disciple of the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. She is an inspirational author, speaker, musician and serves as an Associate Children's Editor at Pauline Books and Media.