We’ve barely scratched the surface of our Lenten journey, which means I’ve faltered at least 462 times in my observances so far, with approximately 2,954 failures to go until we finally reach Easter Sunday.

It’s a good thing we serve a merciful God, isn’t it?

I’m cut from the “all or nothing” cloth. Let’s just say moderation isn’t my thing, and compiling Lenten observances is no exception: My biggest temptation during Lent is to do ALL THE THINGS.

During the season of Lent, I want to quit hitting my snooze alarm, read more spiritual writing, get in shape, pray the rosary and the Divine Mercy Chaplet and at least two novenas every day, eat better, stop spending money, go to adoration every day, go to bed sooner, pay off that debt, attend daily Mass, spend quality time with the kids, go to Stations of the Cross every Friday, attend confession more often, mail off all those thank you notes, keep up with the laundry and dishes and meal planning, and, of course, purge my family members’ closets, dressers, and souls.

I want to stop eating out and give that money to the poor. I want our family to volunteer at the local soup kitchen, St. Vincent de Paul, and the memory care facility. I want to give up strife, impatience, and lack of kindness in our home. And, last but not least, I want to sing hymns as I sort through the endless piles in the attic and garage and other hidden places, paring our material possessions down once and for all by recycling, repurposing, and donating as much as possible. And I want to accomplish all these things (and more!) with joy and energy, while wearing sackcloth and ashes. Surely, once I have accomplished all these things during this ultimate season of penance, I will finally get holy!

What ends up happening when I attempt to do so many things is – surprise, surprise — complete overwhelm because of the untenable list I’ve fashioned. Feeling defeated, it seems entirely reasonable to throw in the towel on this whole extra praying, fasting, and almsgiving business altogether.

Not too long ago, it finally dawned on me that, in my crazy attempts to manufacture the Best! Lent! Ever! I was completely missing the mark. As I plowed through my to-do list, I was simultaneously bulldozing right through the very heart of this penitential season, which is love and mercy itself. Anything we take on or give up is meant to draw us closer to the God who loves us infinitely more than we can possibly imagine. We’re called to deeper conversion through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving during these 40 days so we may more closely encounter Almighty God, who IS love. How can we go deeper in our relationship with God when we’re spread so thin we have nothing left to give? How can we draw close to the Lord when our hearts are far away from him, consumed as they are with overflowing agendas and crippling concerns?

Here are three quick tips that help me experience a more sane and sanctifying Lent:

  1. Listen.

    Odds are, if you take time to talk with Jesus about how he wants you to draw closer to him throughout these 40 days, he’ll let you know. You just have to slow down and be quiet long enough to listen. What he wants will probably involve sacrifice. We may not like what we hear, but I know that God’s plans for my life are inordinately better than anything I could conceive on my own. It’s best, then, to listen and obey.

  2. Document

    If I don’t write down my Lenten promises, I’m 245 percent more likely to forget them, or try to fudge them, or — did I mention I’d forget them? My goal is to have everyone in our family list — on a big sheet of paper that’s visible to all — how they plan to pray, fast, and give alms this Lent. We can then encourage, uplift, and inspire each other on our journey. And remind each other it’s not a holiness competition.

  3. Persevere

       Don’t give up. And if you’ve already given up, it’s never too late to choose to get back up again. Tell God you’re sorry and keep trying. You may fall again, but getting up afterward is where sanctifying grace is found. You can dooooo iiiit!

In need of more practical inspiration this Lent? Check out these online resources: catholicicing.com, catholicallyear.com, holyheroes.com, takeupandread.org, blessedisshe.net, Bishop Robert Barron’s daily meditations (lentreflections.com), Fr. Mike Schmitz’s YouTube video called “Picking a Thing for Lent,” and our own Archbishop Alexander Sample’s encore episode of the “Voice of the Shepherd” radio program about Lent, available in the Mater Dei Radio archives: materdeiradio.com

Here’s to a sane and spiritually fulfilling Lenten season, friends. You do not journey alone.