Feeling the Lenten doldrums? It’s all part of the plan

3 mins read

The “doldrums” are an area of the world’s oceans, encircling the globe roughly near the equator, known scientifically as the “Intertropical Convergence Zone” (ITCZ). It is characterized by windless weather and still seas, which impeded and slowed ocean navigation before the rise of motor driven seagoing vessels.

When a pre-mid-19th century sailing ship hit the doldrums, the sails would go lank, the ship would drift and spin aimlessly, and the ship’s crew would become despondent and lethargic. As victuals and water began to run short, the doldrums instilled a sense of helplessness and hopelessness on the ship, veering even toward despair. Only wind and current could deliver them from the doldrums. They were helpless to save themselves.

From this geographic occurrence, we use the word “doldrums” to describe a blue state of mind or listless period of time. To be in the doldrums is to feel emotionally stalled, morally adrift or spiritually mired. The term implies stagnation or even depression.

Failing at Lent

This is about the time of Lent that many of us hit the spiritual doldrums. Perhaps we have become weary of our Lenten disciplines, and disappointed that they have not yielded the spiritual growth for which we hoped. Or maybe we have failed at one or more discipline, and have become mired in a slough of Lenten despond. In either case, we feel adrift and aimless, frustrated by our own failure and even enervated by our lack of discipline. In short, we feel like we have failed at Lent.

I suggest that Lenten doldrums are a feature, not a bug.

The periodic sense of futility and failure in our Lenten disciplines emphasize precisely the reason we practice them. We cannot save ourselves, and our attempts to do so always leave us in despair. Of course, it is always a good thing when we consistently carry through with our disciplines; and even better when we find them spiritually enriching. Those few people are to be admired.

But for the rest of us, the point is not so much to avoid Lenten failure, as it is to perfect that failure. Lent is not necessarily accomplished by never losing the script, or never failing in our disciplines. And it is not necessarily defeated when we do lose focus or fall short in our commitments. Rather, Lent is perfected when our failures cause us to realize how utterly dependent we are on the grace of God, communicated to us by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. We enter the fulness of our Lenten desert not by our success, but by our failure. And thus we are driven back to the arms of the Savior.

Leaning on grace

In his song, “I Came to Believe,” Johnny Cash sings,

“I couldn’t manage the problems I laid on myself
And it just made it worse when I laid them on somebody else …

Nothing worked out when I handled it all on my own
And each time I failed it made me feel twice as alone
Then I cried, ‘Lord, there must be an easier way
For it just cannot be that a man should lose hope every day.'”

If this sounds like a description of your Lent, you are not alone. If we allow our Lenten observances to become a test of our own spiritual or moral endurance — if we try to handle it all on our own — we will become despondent. But it is precisely that despondency that shows us our dependence. Just as an 18th century whaler was dependent on the current and wind, so too are we dependent on God’s refreshing grace. Hitting the doldrums distills that in our minds and hearts. It reminds us that we are sinners in need of a savior.

The singer in “I Came to Believe” did not give up. Rather, as the chorus notes,

“And I came to believe in a power much higher than I I came to believe that I needed help to get by In childlike faith I gave in and gave him a try And I came to believe in a power much higher than I.”

Lent is not an end in itself. It serves the greater end of growing deeper in faith and closer to God. Lent is the means by which we develop a greater awareness that God alone saves us. When we fail on our own, we move toward a better understanding of our own futility. If that end is served by failure in our Lenten disciplines, then those failures move us toward the perfection of its purpose. Perfecting the art of Lenten failure is surrendering to the God who saves us.

Kenneth Craycraft

Kenneth Craycraft, an OSV columnist, is a professor of moral theology at Mount St. Mary's Seminary and School of Theology in Cincinnati and author of “Citizens Yet Strangers: Living Authentically Catholic in a Divided America" (OSV Books).