Didn’t we just have Lent? Aren’t we going through it still?
It comes as a shock every year when I look at the calendar and see that it’s almost Ash Wednesday; but this year feels especially unreasonable. The pandemic and all its wretched offspring have made most of 2020 and all of the new year feel so very penitential.
Almost everyone I know has lost someone to COVID. And we’ve lost so many other things that make life pleasant and rich: Eating together, gathering with friends, traveling, visiting family. Many of us can’t even go back to Mass yet. Adoration isn’t safe; confession takes massive planning and coordination. Weddings and other sacraments have been postponed or sadly muted. Even if we haven’t lost anyone we love, we have all lost so much.
So when I think about what we will do for Lent this year, I feel dull and discouraged. What to do? I know intellectually that people throughout history have suffered through much tougher times, but that doesn’t make it easier to muster up any enthusiasm for the coming season of penitence.
Maybe it’s a good thing to go into Lent feeling like we’re just not capable of much.
The only sensible plan I can think of is to accept that the pandemic is going to make things different this year, and to lean into that. To try to accept our situation as a gift from God, and to use the pandemic as a framework for Lent.
I asked around, and here’s what some of my Catholic friends are contemplating, as a way of letting the pandemic shape our Lent:
1. Don’t add any extra penance or practice, but commit to intentionally offering up the suffering we can’t seem to avoid. When masks start feeling stuffy, offer it up. When our hands are cracked and sore from so much washing and sanitising, offer it up. When we have to forgo a party or a visit, offer it up. If we are sick with the virus ourselves, or dealing with the long-term effects of it, offer it up.
2. When it’s not safe to congregate indoors for typical Lenten practices, bring Lent outdoors, and maybe discover some new spiritual practice we wouldn’t otherwise have considered. Consider setting up a simple Stations of the Cross on your land if we’ve got it, or say a daily rosary while going for a walk.
3. Have a simple and cheap meal at home every Friday, and donate the money saved to a food pantry.
4. Whenever we face not being able to go to indulge ourselves, to go to restaurants or entertain ourselves with movies or activities, dwell on the idea that poor people live this way all the time, pandemic or no. Let this thought shape how generous we are toward the poor.
5. Make a resolution to stop complaining. It’s not a sin to express how we feel when we’re suffering, but complaining can become a way of life that drags us down and brings others with us. We can make the choice to take a deep breath, expel it slowly, and decide not to give it voice every time we’re frustrated or thwarted, inconvenienced or disappointed.
6. Choose someone who’s elderly or otherwise homebound because of the pandemic and make a particular, focused effort to minister to them. Do their shopping, pick up their prescriptions, call to check in and chat. If we have the funds, pay for food delivery or something to cheer their day, like a bouquet of fresh flowers or a fruit basket.
7. If we’re not able to go to Mass, resolve to stream it as attentively as possible and make a good spiritual communion, even though there is no obligation to do this.
8. Consider the relationships that have been harmed during the pandemic — either because we haven’t been able to meet in person, or because disagreements over politics and science have turned ugly and caused a rupture. Commit to doing what we can to repair one relationship. If the stress and fear of dealing with the pandemic have led us to become habitually angry, harsh, or accusatory, take the time to step back and practice a more gentle approach to people we disagree with.
9. If we’ve been dealing with boredom and frustration by spending vast amounts of time online and on social media, take Lent as a detox time. Install timers or other ways of limiting how much time we waste endlessly scrolling, and use those hours to read, pray, create, or just rest.
10. If we’ve allowed ourselves to do unsafe things during the pandemic for any reason — out of selfishness, out of carelessness, or in an effort to make some kind of political statement — reassess our responsibility, and recommit to making the sacrifices necessary to keep vulnerable people more safe. This is, after all, at the heart of our faith: To be willing to suffer for the good of others.
Maybe it’s a good thing to go into Lent feeling like we’re just not capable of much. There are years when we eagerly bound toward the season, telling ourselves we’re going to take Lent by the horns and show it who’s boss. We decide we’re going to wow God with our incredible sacrifices and transform our spiritual lives singlehandedly.
But the whole point of Lent is that we’re hopeless on our own. We’ve always been this helpless; it’s just easy to forget when we can set up complicated structures of liturgical practices.
Lent is supposed to be a time when all the extras are stripped away and we let ourselves stand before God just as we are, and look to Him to make us whole again. What better time to do this than during a pandemic?
So many choices have been made for us, and all that’s left to us is to decide how to respond, and whether or not to go to God for help.