By Amber Kinloch
Something I commonly hear in homilies around the midpoint of Advent or Lent is the urgent reminder to “Stay awake! Remain on track with your plan! Christmas/Easter is near!”
I understand and appreciate why we receive these reminders—it is hard to be faithful, and these penitential seasons help renew and strengthen us spiritually. I especially appreciate the encouragement to make an effort and not think, “It’s too late. I’ll try again next year.”
Still, I tend towards pessimism and discouragement. I’ll start out a penitential season all pumped up to achieve x, y, and z. And then reality strikes. I get sick. There’s a family emergency. I hit upon a rough patch spiritually. Cracks appear in my plan. I fall off track and start to worry about “failing” Advent or Lent. My courage weakens, and pretty soon I’m limping along, wondering if it’s even worth trying.
Even if I have what I deem a “successful” Advent or Lent, I don’t want to stop there. I want to keep growing in my spiritual life throughout the rest of the year. But how?
The Bigger Picture
We all go through ups and downs in our lives. Sometimes we’re on fire spiritually. We seem to be making major strides forward and feel prepared to tackle anything. Other times, we’re bombarded by suffering, and it’s a major accomplishment just to pray a Rosary or fix a smile on our face.
And then there are the routine days that comprise most of life. We have our difficulties, but overall our lives are calm and stable. Our greatest struggle during these times is to remember how urgent it is to grow in holiness. There is no standing still on the road. One either goes forward or back. Lukewarmness always threatens to lay hold of us if we aren’t on our guard.
The penitential seasons of Advent and Lent are meant to give us a spiritual boost. They help kick us into gear and get a move on with this great work of becoming saints.
Still, I find these seasons can produce spiritual stress. Four or six weeks is such a short time. It might be good for a boost, but if my goal is to grow or change in some major fashion, then it’s likely not going to happen in that timeframe.
So, I’ve taken a step back—way back. I’ve extended my perspective outward, asking, “How might I grow in the course of this entire liturgical year?”
A year is a long time. On the other hand, as any adult might tell you, a year isn’t that long a period of time—it’s “just right” for setting major goals and evaluating progress over time.
A Thorough Self-Assessment
What are your major sins, the ones you keep confessing over and over? What virtues do you feel you’re weak in? If you’re anticipating a major change in your state of life (e.g., graduating college, marriage, retirement), what might you need to do to prepare for that? Once you’ve assessed yourself, you can figure out specific changes you need to make.
As an example, here’s something I’ve decided to work on this liturgical year:
- Vice: Food.
- Grazing at odd hours.
- Eating out of boredom.
- “Living to eat.”
- Missing meals with family because I’m not hungry.
- Changes to Make:
- Eat meals at fixed, regular times.
- No snacking.
- Use dishes.
- Eat slowly & consciously.
This might not be my major vice, but it’s a significant one rooted in a disordered love of comfort and pleasure. It impacts my family life, and if I’m called to marriage as I think I am, I don’t want to be burdened with this. So, I’m working on changing it. It’s not “difficult” to fix—I have a solid course of action—but it’s going to take time and sustained effort to establish new habits. A year allows for that and for any extra goals I might set as I make progress in this area.
A note: If you want to make progress, it’s important to reassess yourself periodically throughout the year. I like to examine myself at the end of each month, or at the start of an earthly or liturgical season. I’ll note down specific details about how I’m doing and make concrete resolutions to improve. It’s especially helpful to keep a private written record of these assessments. As the year passes by, you can refer back and see what sort of progress you’re making.
You might also schedule an assessment in connection with a specific event, e.g., monthly Confession or a Holy Hour. This helps ensure that you’ll actually do it and not put it off until later. (Believe me, it’s all too easy to fall off track if you don’t do something at the time you’ve blocked out for it.)
The Overarching Point
Our ultimate goal is sainthood, i.e., perfection. Our present goal is progress. Progress doesn’t mean we don’t have struggles and low points. It means we’re generally staying on track despite the obstacles we face.
Sometimes our progress consists of making great strides towards rooting out some deeply ingrained defect. Sometimes, it’s just getting up over and over again despite committing the same sin twenty times a day. Always, it involves looking at God and making an effort, especially when we don’t feel like it.
If you’re feeling stuck spiritually, take a deep breath and don’t worry. It’s a lie that you can’t do this or that it’s too late to start. As long as you have breath in your body, there’s time. How much time, you and I don’t know. That’s why it’s important to get started this instant. God will help us. We need only ask and make the effort.
Amber writes from the bunker of her living room. There she hunkers down with her laptop and a blanket while keeping an eye and ear tuned in to the activity of family life. Music set on loop keeps her energy flowing as she muses on the deeper happenings of ordinary life and what food to restock the fridge with.