(LifeSiteNews) — With the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday comes the familiar consideration of habit. What are we going to do for Lent this year? This can become a habit in itself, a conditioned response resulting in a reflexive embargo on chocolate. Yet it is a time best suited for the examination of the patterns which inform our personal traits. Some obvious, some subtle – each deserving the attentions of conscience for the potential for improvement.
The purpose of Lenten penance is to grow in virtue. What does this mean? Is it even possible to apply such a grand-sounding aim to your everyday routine? This seems an ambitious goal for the refusal to eat nice things. Perhaps it is. Perhaps there is a better way to do better, than to simply starve the craving for comfort food.
This is not to say that simple renunciation has no place in penance. I am thinking more of the need to return the focus of the practices of Lent to their purpose, rather than to criticize the measure of their severity. It offers 40 days in which to learn again how to prefer God to the world. How do we approach such an onerous task if not with a sense of its extremity?
There is a dangerous temptation in an over-zealous penance. Of course fasting has merit, but it is not the object of fasting to starve the body to death. The purpose of Lent is to not to seek perfection in extraordinary mortification, nor to rely on a habitual renunciation of choc chip cookies. It is the habit here which matters. Lenten penance should not be automatic but sincere.
The goldilocks problem of choosing a penance can be one of the hardest parts of Lent. Is it too easy or too difficult? The intensity of any new practice is hard to assess before it is done.
This is an exercise in perfection. I find perfection an obstruction to action in this sense, it being impossible to grasp and unhelpful as a model of personal attainment. I am not perfect – I am not going to be perfect – and I cannot therefore predict the perfect measure of penance. This is no reason to abandon your penance. It is a good reason to abandon the standard of perfection.
Instead of the perfect, consider the possible. A feasible penance is one you can and will do. Yet an imperceptible penance is no penance at all. How to find the balance?
You can become less bad at doing Lent, whilst becoming less bad overall. This is how I like to frame the cultivation of virtue: as the pruning of vice. Instead of trying to judge the severity of some restriction, why not instead pick some habit to weed out?
Our actions are patterned and vice is no exception. It is hard to accept we are not perfect but this is the first step in identifying precisely how. Whether obvious or otherwise, we will all have vicious habits into which we fall as a matter of routine. Lent is an opportunity to break this rhythm.
Pick one bad habit and use Lent to shrink it. Again, do not aim for spotless perfection. The idea is not to become immaculate, but to become less bad. By habit.
To practice the starvation of vice is to do two things. The power of the vice in question will be diminished, while your overall discipline improves. You can get better at being less bad in particular and in general. This kind of discipline strengthens you with practice. To exercise in this way is fortifying, and it reminds us of the near occasion of sin. To make a habit of discipline makes us less afraid of our own weakness.
A priest once explained to me that we sin because we like it. That penchant makes a practice of preference. It is through the discipline of the will that we learn the self-command to turn away from what we find appealing, and toward that which we know to be better.
New habits, better ones, are possible if we concentrate our energies on their development. Much of what we are in life is the silt of experience, and a good measure of that is laid down by the course of our choices.
Through the starvation of vice comes the power to change the course of our lives. Start small, start soon, and never give up.