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Swinging and missing in Lent

Fr. Lou DelFra | Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Honestly now – how many times have you broken your Lenten promise so far? As I do most Lents, I promised to spend 30 minutes in quiet prayer each morning of these 40 days, but I already know of three days when that has not happened, two days when I didn’t reach the finish line and at least two more days when my prayer was so distracted it could hardly count as prayer. Today is the 16th day of Lent, and that’s seven whiffs. If Lent were a baseball game, my .438 average would have someone checking me for steroids. God, however, has not yet knocked on my door with a random drug test, so the numbers don’t seem to impress Him much. Has God ever tried to hit a baseball? It’s not that easy.
The days when we break our Lenten promises can be the most important of the 40 days of Lent. Reminders of our seemingly unshakeable inability to keep even simple commitments to God bring with them a whole battery of interior reactions, rich with the possibility of deeper self-knowledge and a deeper knowledge of God. I have learned some of my most enduring spiritual lessons while swinging and missing during Lent.
Most importantly, I have discovered that if I put my mind to it, I am capable of endlessly frustrating myself. I have never made it through a flawless 40 days of Lent and the prospects for next year don’t look great either. I am pretty sure I am incapable of pulling off a perfect Lent. And once I start thinking outside of Lent to the challenges that confront me the other 325 days, it’s a wonder I get up in the morning. It would be easier and safer if I just stayed in Keenan Hall with the door locked.
Of course, this spiritual depression – born of a spiritual perfectionism – is a helpful conclusion to reach precisely for its absurdity. Lent reminds me precisely of the certainty that moral and spiritual perfection is an impossibility for me. Yet an overwhelming sense of discouragement at our failings hardly helps us build up the Kingdom of God, which I definitely can’t do locked in my room in Keenan – no offense, of course, to the guys at Keenan.
My search for a more helpful response sends my mind through the Lenten scriptures and the almost daily reminder they provide of the collection of sinners with whom Jesus spent his days.  Times of spiritual discouragement are extremely rich times to read about Jesus’ encounter with the town thief Zacchaeus or Jesus’ calling of Matthew the tax collector. I nearly cry every third Sunday of Lent when I hear Jesus speak in utter compassion to the adulterous Samaritan woman sitting at the well: “You are thirsting after water that will make you thirsty again. But I can give you water so that you will thirst no more.” These are people of significant moral imperfection, and what strikes me to the heart is not so much that Jesus forgives them – though of course he does – but that he actually seems to seek out and then remains in their company. My readings of these passages, and seeing myself in them, are some of the most intimate moments with God I experience all year. While they don’t justify my sins and shortcomings, they do speak to them – and the words are ones of mercy, love and a renewed call to conversion, true freedom and a relationship with God. My Lenten failings are invitations not into discouragement, but into a deeper understanding of the depth of God’s mercy and love.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be so content with imperfection, but – truth be told – I kind of like hitting .438 during Lent. Recognition of our limitations and recognition of our thirst to transcend them – even if that recognition sometimes manifests itself only as frustration with ourselves – is a time-tested gateway to a more vibrant and real relationship with Christ. Our limitations make us one with most of the Gospel characters Jesus goes out of his way to encounter. Jesus seeks us out with such persistent compassion despite, or indeed because of, our sin, failures and imperfections. So, .438 it is this Lent. But hey, it’s hard to hit a baseball with perfect regularity.Besides, you don’t want to be at the peak of your game in spring training.
Lou DelFra is the director of pastoral life for the Alliance for Catholic Education and a resident of Keenan Hall. He can be reached at
[email protected]
    The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.