I read a useful idea on Twitter from Father Cassidy Stinson, who uses the handle @TheHappyPriest. He said: “Pro tip: if you’re not sure what to do for Lent, start by thinking about the themes of your last confession. How can you tailor your penance or practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving to help you grow in the opposing virtues?”
I had to admit, the things that I was considering doing for Lent didn’t have much in common with the things that I tend to bring to confession over and over and over again. There was nothing wrong with the little penitential plan I had come up with, but there wasn’t much overlap between it and the sins I (allegedly) struggle with day to day, year after year.
I say “allegedly” because if I were really struggling with them and trying hard to use the graces of confession to give them up, why would I not seize up on the opportunity of Lent to really focus on those exact sins? HMMM. It’s almost as if I didn’t want to give up … the things I didn’t want to give up.
This is not some brand-new flaw that I invented all by myself. Most of us are very adept at compartmentalizing our lives. I’m describing compartmentalization within my spiritual life — confessing one thing, but then focusing on something else during Lent — but it’s also very common to separate our spiritual life from our life in general. We keep religion tidily sequestered away from our everyday lives, treating our psyches like the two-chambered chemical bomb in “Die Hard with a Vengeance”: Gotta keep the two sides from mixing, or else KABOOM. A catastrophic explosion.
And we’re not wrong. Sometimes, when we let our interior walls start to break down and we realize that the words we hear on Sunday actually apply to us outside the church building, it does feel explosive, and not in the fun way.
My social media groups are full of little explosions like this: Women suddenly discovering that things they’ve been doing in their marriage for years are not actually licit, and now they have to break it to their husbands, or college students reading about the Last Supper in the Gospel and realizing there’s no way Jesus meant all that as a metaphor, and their Baptist parents are going to be very upset. Abigail Favale, in her excellent book “The Genesis of Gender,” describes admitting to herself, right before she’s due to begin teaching a class, that she no longer believed much of what was in her curriculum. Sometimes you just helplessly watch as a moment of honesty shatters the divide, two previously sequestered ideas mix, and everything blows up.
But it’s not always catastrophic. Sometimes this mixing, this integration, is more like something else I saw on Twitter recently. I can’t find the exact post, but it describes an old man in assisted living, and he’s barely functional. He can hardly walk, he can hardly eat, he can’t talk, and he never makes eye contact. So a doctor sits down and reviews all the various medications he’s on. These are prescriptions that different doctors have given him for various problems over the years — but none of them have been talking to each other. Some of the medications interact poorly with each other; some of them have been causing more problems than they cure. Some of them were only meant to be temporary, but no one was in charge of integrating everything. No one was taking the long view, or looking at him as a whole.
So this more thoughtful doctor carefully eliminated several of the medications. He really thought about what the man’s needs were, and he treated him accordingly. And the man woke up. He began to eat, speak and walk again. He still needed treatment, and he was still old, but his care had been integrated. He began to live more fully again, because someone was looking at him as an integrated whole rather than as a collection of unrelated problems.
This, too, is what we can sometimes experience when we allow spiritual truths to permeate our lives and integrate themselves into our everyday existence. There are so many people stumbling their way through life as a collection of problems and trying to cobble together a treatment plan out of this and that solution that make us feel and function worse. It may feel like we’re treating ourselves when we let ourselves have the things that make us temporarily satisfied, but a treat is not a treatment. At some point, you really must look at yourself as a whole and ask: What more am I capable of? What would it look like to be whole?
Even if some difficult integration of spiritual ideas into our everyday life feels painful and explosive at first, eventually it will be restorative. It may take a long time! But this is what Jesus does. He is the great restorer, the great physician, the greater healer, the one who makes whole. He sees us not as a collection of individual diseases to be treated, not as a collection of sins to be blasted away, but the one who sees us for who we really are, and who is crazy about us.
I think I’ve made it sound like, in order to have a proper Lent, you have to do some kind of extreme interrogation of your entire soul and psyche, and make a life-changing decision about the one most important thing in your life that needs to change, and focus all of your energies on it right this minute. That’s not what I mean! What I do mean is this: There was a time in my life I loved going to adoration, because it was so peaceful and restorative and calming. But I hated going to confession. I had so much anxiety about it, and it felt so awkward and embarrassing. I made myself go, but I was in a terrible state over it. I was actually in the car driving to the church when the words came blaring through my head: “IT’S THE SAME PERSON.” I was going to see the person I adored. It was just more of the same.
I already knew this. But how healing to hold this idea in my heart and take it into the confessional with me. It made a big difference in how I approached the sacrament, when I remembered I was going to see the same person. When I integrated my expectations of restoration and joy into my preparations for confession.
So if you are planning your Lent and you have the mental wherewithal, take the time to look at the places in your life where there are walls. See what is sequestered, and see if that makes sense. See where there are contradictions, and a lack of coherence and integration. See if there’s some way you can bring Jesus into a place where you haven’t allowed him before. Maybe there will be an explosion! But maybe healing.
Simcha Fisher is an award-winning columnist who regularly contributes to America Magazine, Parable Magazine and The Catholic Weekly. She lives with her husband and eight of their 10 children and several animals in a surprisingly small house in New Hampshire.