The season of Lent generally begins with a great sense of spiritual expectation.
We have probably considered what we are going to ‘do’ for Lent and our hopes are high. At that moment, we fully expect that this Lent will be a time of deep spiritual renewal; we have identified some of our faults and ways to correct them through prayer, fasting, almsgiving and our devotional practices. We are feeling pleased with ourselves. This is going to be a great Lent.
And then we fall and fail and our hopes are dashed. Again.
This is generally my experience at the beginning of Lent. Every Lent. I’m so thick-headed that the poor Lord needs to teach me this lesson annually, because I have entirely forgotten it by the time the next Lent arrives.
And so, like every year before it, I sit and consider where I have gone wrong. I usually identify that part of my error was in deciding for myself what lessons the season of Lent was intended to teach me; my view of myself and my needs tends to be biaised and lopsided and so I need a more objective perspective. And that’s usually the first point where the Lord steps in. Most years, I eventually reach the point where I am astonished that I have even thought to choose the lessons for myself, knowing perfectly well from past experience (which I have clearly forgotten) that Lent tends to bring it’s own lessons. And much better ones.
Every Lent also brings me another lesson – like the others, repeated over and over. And it is this – no matter what I choose or decide or determine, I will fail. And usually fairly quickly, sometimes even on Ash Wednesday itself. All those good intentions seem to have evaporated, like the mist which vanishes in the first rays of the morning sunlight. Thankfully, it doesn’t end there – I generally renew my good intentions quickly and start over. And over. But the realisation that I am capable of very little good is hard to take, even if it works toward establishing a deeper sense of humility.
It is once I reach this point that I remind myself of something which I think is quite important. On the way to Calvary, Christ fell three times. And three times, He got back up and kept going. I take a lesson from this and try to apply it as often as I need to. Yes, I will fall and I will fail – and I will do this over and over and over. But perhaps what really counts isn’t just what we achieve in terms of the end result – but the effort we put into getting there, especially when it is hardest to do so and to keep going.
And that means we never stop trying, no matter how often we fail. Like the Lord, we get up and we keep going.
The spiritual life is a great blessing and often a joy. But it is also an incredibly hard path to walk, such that we perhaps stumble rather than walk. That path is filled with all sorts of sharp and uneven rocks and there are thorns to every side which will tear at us. But we keep going. We do so because the only alternative is to stop – and that is simply not an option, no matter what.
I may fall and I may fail – but I will not stop trying and I will not stop hoping.
This Lent, like all the Lents before it, the Lord will send me – and you – what He chooses to send, and for His own good reasons. Embrace what He sends and trust in Him. And in this way, come to know and love Him better.
Perhaps that is the simple lesson of Lent.