| Father Joe Waters

I Haven’t Stuck to My Lenten Promises. Is there a Way to Restart?

March 13, 2023

QUESTION: We are weeks into Lent, and I’ve already failed. I had all these plans on what I would give up for Lent and how I would pray more and give more. However, I just can’t seem to get it together and stick to it. I feel like I’m doomed because I haven’t stuck to my Lenten promises. Can I come back from this failure? Is there a way to restart?

ANSWER: I begin by asking you to consider a text from the Roman Missal:

"By your gracious gift each year, your faithful await the sacred paschal feasts with the joy of minds made pure so that, more eagerly intent on prayer and the works of charity and participating in the mysteries by which they have been reborn, they may be led to the fullness of grace that you bestow on your sons and daughters."
-Preface I of Lent

The prayers of the Church’s Liturgy remind us of the true nature of Lent and its disciplines, not a self-improvement project but a time to drink more fully of the grace of our Baptism. The penitential season is meant to renew our true identity. In Baptism, the Church claimed us for Christ, and we were configured to him by the Sign of the Cross. Passing through the waters of Baptism, we regained our freedom as God’s children and became members of God’s Holy People. Therefore, Lent is not about doing as much as it is about re-learning who we are in Christ. Through the power of Christ’s Paschal Mystery, our Lenten disciplines allow God to purify our hearts and enlighten our minds.

Lent’s prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are intended to lead to a greater share in God’s outpouring of grace and mercy. Embracing Lenten discipline encourages us to fully live our vocation of mature love in Christ. However, our own willfulness and the agitation of the Devil’s lies can cause us to become spiritually discouraged, which is the greatest obstacle to having a fruitful Lent.  

We should notice how the enemy tricks us into believing that all is lost if we fail or are sluggish in our Lenten practices. The evil spirit’s discouragement is always a lie. Even the most minimal acts of Lenten devotion can draw us closer in communion with God and our brothers and sisters. Because we are weak, we cultivate disordered attachments and cling to passing things, and the Devil lures us to seek fleeting pleasures. The enemy uses our cravings to trap us, enticing us with his lie that our disordered attachments offer us even greater delights. Through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, God helps us reorder our attachments and empowers us to regain the freedom to choose the things that endure.

Two spiritual masters, Brother Lawrence (1614-1691) and Venerable Pio Bruno Lanteri (1759-1830), can teach us to resist giving up on the Lenten disciplines:

Brother Lawrence: "As often as I could, I placed myself as a worshiper before Him, fixing my mind upon His holy presence, recalling it when I found my mind wandering from Him. This proved to be an exercise frequently painful, yet I persisted through all difficulties."

Venerable Pio Bruno Lanteri: "I will not allow myself to be discouraged, however, I may fall. If God is for me, who can be against me (Rom 8:31)? Though I fall a thousand times, each time… I will rise again as peaceful as if it were the first, knowing my weakness and knowing, Lord, your great mercy… And so, if I should fall even a thousand times a day, a thousand times, with peaceful repentance, I will say immediately, Nunc coepi —Now I begin— my God, my God!”

Thus, I encourage you to resolve to begin the Lenten disciplines again and do not let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Too often, we choose penitential practices with a self-improvement mentality, so our choices can be unrealistic and lead quickly to discouragement. Instead, we should choose small acts that allow us to lean into God’s grace, become more aware of his companionship, and lead toward greater love of God and neighbor. If we open ourselves even a little to receive more of God’s grace, God will lead us to greater holiness, which is Lent’s goal. 

St. Ignatius’s spiritual exercises offer insight into how God encourages us on the path of holiness and helps us resist the Devil’s discouragements. I recommend Father Timothy Gallagher’s book, Overcoming Spiritual Discouragement. Father Gallagher uses St. Ignatius’ insights to teach us how to deal with discouragement in the spiritual life.

Be assured that the Church, in heaven and on earth, prays for you and with you as you begin again in the joyful spirit of Lent!

Father Joseph Waters is Judicial Vicar and Censor Librorum of the Diocese of St. Petersburg.

If you have a question you would like us to consider for this series, email communicate@dosp.org.