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By Mary Jo Gerd, Blog, April 1, 2019
We are at the halfway point in Lent—officially midway through our 40-day spiritual desert. No doubt that means different things to each one of us depending on our unique personalities and proclivities. Some of us are barely limping along with gritted teeth. “What do you mean only twenty more days?!” While others can’t seem to get enough of all this glorious prayer and penance. “Woohoo! Bring. IT. On. Lenten challenge accepted!” And the rest of us fall somewhere in between on the Lenten personality spectrum. Depending on the year and the circumstances surrounding my life, I’ve found myself all over the map when it comes to my attitude. While I think the world loves to caricature Catholics negatively, I couldn’t help poking some good-natured fun at the alter egos I’ve assumed or encountered on my Lenten journey. Maybe you’ll recognize one or two familiar traits in yourself as well.
The following is a list of five Lenten characters or personality disorders that present common pitfalls in our efforts to grow in intimacy with Christ. We are fallen and have a knack for sabotaging our spiritual walk. No need to despair. By zeroing in on some of the dangers in our path we can make the most of this last half of Lent and capitalize on all the grace God is ready to bestow on us. But before forging ahead, it may require a good, hard look in the mirror. Doctor’s orders.
THE FIVE LENTEN PERSONALITY DISORDERS
1. LAST-MINUTE LARRY
Last-minute Larry is a natural procrastinator. He may have the best of intentions. In fact, right now he’s planning an incredible Holy Week. That’s when he’ll really ramp up the sacrifice. For Larry, there is always ample time down the road to get the soul in order. Put off the hard work until tomorrow when things are more FILL IN THE BLANK with a list of excuses. Being a buzzer beater may be exciting in sports, but in our faith life, it’s risky and fruitless. It borders on the deadly sin of sloth. People often mistake sloth with laziness. Offenders can be busy, productive people. It’s important to order our day around prayer and quiet time with God. But if you’re running in a million different directions, you’ve made no room for the Lord.
The Spiritual RX: Desert time means taking time right now for spiritual growth. Be intentional about spending scheduled time in God’s presence. Take your slothful predilection to confession. Invoke St. John of the Cross, a spiritual warrior who experienced the dark night of the soul. Ask him to pray that you may journey to the cross rather than kick the can down the road.
2. LITTLE MISS SCRUPULOUS
Little Miss Scrupulous really embraces the penance part of Lent. Sadly, in her mind, she can never do enough for God. Rather than celebrating any spiritual victory, she discounts her numerous efforts and often feels defeated. Miss Scrupulous is striving for perfection, not holiness. Holiness assumes mistakes will be made but requires the courage to keep at it in spite of weakness. She embodies the cartoonish characterization that many Protestants have about Catholics. She feels that she must earn her salvation, that God will love her more if she ups the decades she says in a day. A rigorous prayer life and spirit of sacrifice can be very beneficial, but if they become a benchmark for God’s love, we are waging a losing battle. How would this work in any loving relationship? Imagine never truly being able to rest in a spouse’s love. If I lose 15 pounds and whiten my teeth, he’ll surely love me more. This is toxic. Those of us prone to scrupulosity need to remember that Christ desires our hearts, not merely our actions. We must be performing tasks with great love. Great love requires assurance that we are first loved. We must trust in His unconditional love. His love is NEVER dependent on our perfection. God loves us right now as we are.
The Spiritual RX: To overcome this spiritually exhausting tendency, ask for help from St. Ignatius of Loyola who struggled with scrupulosity in his faith journey. Recite his dedication to Jesus prayer. Meditate on God’s extreme, unfathomable love. Rest in it before the Blessed Sacrament. And above all, set healthy limits. God wants us to walk with Him, not pass a series of impossible road tests.
3. PETERING-OUT PETE
Pete greets the start of Lent with great zeal, like an excited puppy when the doorbell rings. He charts an uncompromising course and plans to accomplish a mountain of tasks. While his enthusiasm is a good thing, his focus is just too wide. In his exuberance, he wants to do it all. Pete signed up to help with multiple ministries. He’s picking up extra late night hours at the adoration chapel. His spiritual reading list is downright impossible unless he forgoes sleep. No mere human can maintain that pace. Sadly, at the midway mark of Lent, Pete is losing steam. He has mistakenly over-extended himself, so his intensity is waning. Now he’s considering throwing in the towel.
The Spiritual RX: There’s a simple solution for Pete. Re-focus. Scale back now! Pick one or two areas in which you can grow and put that God-given fervor into it. Imagine the “great cloud of witnesses” cheering you on in your race to the finish line one step at a time. Ask for the intercession of St. Sebastian, a favorite among athletes as he was known for his incredible endurance.
4. MILQUETOAST MARY
This lady has given up chocolate. Gasp! That’s right. She will refrain from chocolate on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. But it does not include coffee drinks. Her cafe mocha is perfectly fine as long as she doesn’t add the sprinkles on top, unless it’s Monday, Wednesday, and Sunday. Those aren’t fasting days, so sprinkle away! And of course, there’s the extreme penance of no meat on Friday with which she will also happily comply. She will pay extra at the grocery store for a beautiful cut of the finest wild-caught salmon and savor every single lemon-encrusted bite. She may even cut back on alcohol consumption, but technically at sundown, the fast is over so late-night cocktails don’t count. Milquetoast Mary is missing the Lenten boat. She is feebly scratching the surface in this time meant for deep spiritual purification. Christ didn’t say, “stay really comfortable and follow me.” He wants us to embrace the cross which means a modicum of suffering.
The Spiritual RX: Start praying the sorrowful mysteries of the holy rosary. Spend time truly contemplating Christ’s suffering and humiliation on the path to Calvary. It’s important to internalize the faith. You may need some one-on-one time with the third person of the Trinity. Reach out to the Holy Spirit and ask that your fire be reignited. The Come Holy Spirit prayer is a good starting point.
5. PHARISEE PHIL
Phil is fond of letting everyone know just how arduous his Lent has been. Within moments you’ll hear the litany of things he’s abstaining from—carbs, sugar, alcohol and he’s made a commitment to exercise every morning for an hour. If he could don the sackcloth and ashes he would. The problem is he’s more concerned about looking good and getting fit than strengthening his interior life. Phil’s image means too much to him. He’s made Lent about himself. Lent is not a diet program. It’s actually about dying to self and our selfish desires. However sincere his sacrifices, his concern for appearances is wrapped up in the sin of pride. This is a serious hazard on our path to Jesus. As St. Augustine warned, “It was pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes men as angels.”
The Spiritual RX: It’s not too late to turn this Lenten bus around. Often, an overblown ego springs from a place of fear: fear of rejection, fear of not measuring up, or having been made to feel inadequate by someone who should’ve loved unconditionally. Spend time with God in exploring past hurts. There may be someone you’ve not yet forgiven. Read some of St. Faustina’s writings on divine mercy. Ask for her intercession. Divine mercy is the answer to so many problems of a wounded heart, including pride. Challenge yourself to keep your penance private and truly make it about God. Instead, consider keeping a journal tracking your struggles.
Above all, remember we’re on a journey. This Lent is only one of the countless excursions on our pilgrimage to heaven. We can all strive for more ordered personalities by frequenting the sacraments. God offers us so many opportunities of encounter. The Eucharist and confession are two powerful tools that provide us the strength and grace to remain faithful long after the season of Lent is over. By keeping at it we can all hope to become Holy Jorges or Heroic Helgas… Alliteration is fun. I’ll stop now.