Well, Lent is upon us once again, my favorite time of year.
Odd it may seem, considering it is a season of penance and fasting, but I always look forward to it. Part of the reason is that it heralds the coming of Spring and new life.
From a psychological point of view, Lent can be such a fruitful time if observed well. The spiritual disciplines of Lent of fasting, prayer and almsgiving help us to overcome our sinful tendencies and build spiritual muscle to help us throughout the year so we can live a life of Christian virtue. (CCC 1803) To so many, these things seem to be an archaic throwback to medieval times that appear irrelevant in our modern age. But our modern age is one of indulgence of every desire and instant gratification. These are actually deadly for the soul and I may add deadly for relationships, especially marriage.
St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest theologians of the Catholic Church, taught that our emotions (which he included in the term "passions") both want to and need to be guided by reason or our will. We are created by God "good" and are naturally oriented toward all that is good, beautiful, and true. However, because of original sin, we often don't do the good that we want to do but instead fall into sin and do evil.
Denying or misunderstanding original sin and how it has affected humanity is at the root of all misunderstanding of human nature. Original sin has left each human being wounded. Baptism takes away original sin, but our fundamental nature is still left weakened. I like to use this analogy. Imagine if you had a brand new wall and someone hammered a nail into that wall. Once the nail is removed, (baptism) there is still a hole in the wall. You can try to patch the wall or fill it in with plaster but the wall is still compromised now and imperfect. Now, some people are more successful than others in filling in that hole. Some, though, never even try to patch it up. "Well, that's just the way I am!" Most of us, keep hammering more and more nails into the wall with actual sins and get weaker and weaker. We can go to confession and have them removed, but each nail leaves another hole to be filled in.
The whole of the Christian life is filling in those holes with the grace of Christ and the merits that He won for us on the cross. But we need to have a sound understanding of our wounded human nature and a plan for overcoming it in order to do that. The self denial of fasting or almsgiving helps us to gain mastery over ourselves by using our will to deny our natural (and good) inclinations so that we build the strength to use our will to resist when the disordered desires of our weakened human nature pull us toward sin.
We're at the beginning of this holy season. Think of some sensory good that you can give up - coffee, desserts, television, social media. Choose one of the Gospels and devote 30 minutes to read one chapter each day. Consider ramping up your prayer life by adding some devotion like the "Stations Of The Cross". Meditating on the sufferings that Jesus went through on our behalf can motivate us to do better and appreciate His deep and abiding love for each one of us individually. Make confession the centerpiece of your spiritual journey during Lent. What tendencies have you struggled with your whole life that you know are not godly? Take even just one of them and with the help of the Sacraments, work toward gaining mastery over it. We are powerless on our own, but Christ's power is made perfect in weakness.
Married couples can especially benefit during this holy season. During marriage counseling sessions, I so often "hear confessions" in my office of the sins of the spouses. Sure, therapy is a forum for that. People are hurt or feel misunderstood and need to be heard, understood and find help. But those couples that make use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation find a new orientation. Knowing that each week they need to make an accounting of their own sins, shifts the focus from those of the spouse and real progress begins to be made. For the only one we ultimately have the power to change is our self...with God's help.
Our Lord is so wise. He set up the Church and her traditions and practices, even those that seem so out of step with modern life, are filled with wisdom and a profound understanding of and respect for human nature. Lent is a great time to get in step and receive the healing graces God has in store for you.
Remember, "For the sake of the JOY that lay before Him, He endured the cross." (Hebrews 12:2) The purpose of Lent and the purpose of our faith is the JOY in the resurrection. The cross is the means to that end. Lent is a sharing in that cross.
May God richly bless you in this holy season and may your Easter be a time of great and abiding JOY!
Allison Ricciardi, LMHC is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor in New York. In 2001 she founded CatholicTherapists.com in response to a growing demand for counseling that is faithful to the Magisterium and includes prayer and spirituality. She is also Founder and Director of The Raphael Remedy, which offers counseling and life coaching from a Catholic perspective. Allison’s core belief is that God has a great plan for each of His children…and that by combining sound psychology with solid faith, clients can find real healing and lasting happiness.