This isn’t the season of punishment; It’s 40 days to learn what true freedom really means.
“I just don’t know how to get through Lent and continue liking myself.” It’s the common complaint I hear as a priest.
The difficulty is understandable. Many of us already struggle with our self-image. It is easy to compare ourselves to those around us and feel our self-worth plummet as we convince ourselves that we’re not up to par. So many of us are already on edge, already too hard on ourselves, and we maintain only a fragile appearance of contentment when, in fact, inside we are wracked by doubt and feelings of inadequacy. It’s in the context of these struggles that Lent arrives and our pastors remind us to examine ourselves for sins and areas in which we’ve fallen short of the ideal. So where to begin?
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The season of Lent kicked off with Mardi Gras this past Tuesday, followed up by Ash Wednesday. These two days offer a stark contrast—the one is all eating, drinking, and parades; the other is marked by ashes on the forehead, contrition, and fasting. The former seems all happiness and freedom, the latter seems sour and long-faced.
|A healthy perspective about Lent can make the next 40 days a time of fruitful interior growth for all sorts of people.”|
For those who already feel trapped by the inadequacies of their interior life, the last thing they need is to have even more of their freedom taken away.
Personally, I would say I’m self-confident to a fault but after I examine my life and ask if I’m really the sort of person I want to be, the mirror starts to reveal that, perhaps, I’m not the fairest of them all. I cannot imagine how difficult the experience is for those who already have a tendency to be too hard on themselves, who don’t know where to begin because they think that everything about them is wrong, that no one loves them, that they are inadequate.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. A healthy perspective about Lent can make the next 40 days a time of fruitful interior growth for all sorts of people. It can be a reminder that taking time for self-examination and spiritual discipline is actually a positive mental exercise and doesn’t need to leave you with a worse self-image. There is, in fact, great freedom in the disciplines of this season.
|Being free from others seems like a great way to maintain self-esteem and autonomy, but it actually leaves us alone and dissatisfied.”|
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For the next three weeks, I’ll be writing about the traditional Lenten practices of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. If we take these three things seriously, they can set us free from the constraints that hold us back from true self-fulfillment.
“Freedom,” wrote the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen, “is an achievement.” What he means is that, although we’re born with an unlimited ability to make choices, the choices we make either lead to habits that constrain our freedom or they bolster it. A common mistake is to seek freedom from any and all outside influences, rules, or self-discipline. Don’t tell me what to do!
But the ability to choose whatever we want is not true freedom because we end up addicted to our desires or, left unchallenged, we fail to grow and our souls remain immature. Being free from others seems like a great way to maintain self-esteem and autonomy, but it actually leaves us alone and dissatisfied. Chasing a new car, the perfect hairstyle, a certain physique, or shirking responsibility, or never having to answer to anybody else, is unfulfilling.
|Lent as an opportunity to find true freedom.”|
True freedom is not quite what we imagine. It is hard-won, but allows us to achieve contentment and live for each other and a happy life. It isn’t escaping from the world, but fully embracing what is pure, wonderful, and good.
So, if Lent has been a struggle for you in the past and you’re already too hard on yourself, don’t keep beating yourself up over the same things. Instead, see Lent as an opportunity to find true freedom, knowing that your flaws and imperfections aren’t a permanent part of your identity—they can be left behind through the disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
Lent isn’t a retreat from who we are; it’s an opportunity to be set free from whatever it is that holds us back.
This weekend begins a four week series of articles on Lent that examines the ways in which our self-disciplines during this season can be a way of finding spiritual freedom. Check back over the next three weeks for articles on the topics of: Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving.
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