Turning Sadness to Gladness in the Lenten Experience
Dear Fellow Alumni and Friends,
The word “joy” still appears in the Church’s description of Lent, but it’s not a word most Catholics would associate with their own Lenten experiences. Most of your memories of Lent probably revolve some noble resolutions for personal change made on Ash Wednesday, resolves that tend to disappear after a while, along with hopes of abstaining from various foods, beverages, or bad habits. Of course, some of you may have reached Easter Sunday with your resolutions intact, but I suspect you are in the minority. For most Catholics, Lent is a time of disappointment and failure that leaves them with little to show for all their efforts and no personal improvement to speak of. This hardly sounds like a description of a joyous season.
Why do you imagine so many good people experience failure rather than joy when they make resolutions, either as Easter approaches or during other times (such as just after the new year)? And what can be done about it, if anything at all?
Here’s one suggestion to consider: Perhaps most people begin making their goals without realizing they are operating on a faulty premise: “This year I am going to change myself!”
If that sounds like you, stop right there—you’re attempting the impossible. All that you can do realistically is change your behavior, not yourself.
And there’s a big difference. Only God and divine grace can accomplish a change in the person that God created. Human effort is simply unable to create such a transformation. Yes, your efforts can modify your behavior. But it’s a difficult task, as your previous Lenten experiences have probably demonstrated time and again. We humans lack the ability to radically alter what our Creator (along with our genes, history, and years of conditioning) have put in place. So why not abandon that goal of changing yourself and think about a goal that begins by recognizing something in you that doesn’t need changing, but some welcome development?
Instead of thinking about your flaws, I encourage you to sit down before Ash Wednesday and jot down the very best things about you.
Think about the qualities that make you happy to be yourself, ones that other people have told you they recognize and enjoy when you are around. Now you’re looking at what makes you unique. Now you can focus your Lenten goals on these qualities that you don’t want to change, only foster and bring to fuller life. There are two great advantages to this approach (which you I encourage you to use for resolutions beyond the Lenten season): You have a real measure of control around how your good qualities are used, and you can use these qualities to benefit others as well as yourself.
Of course, there are no guarantees. But, by using this method to create your Lenten resolutions, I bet you will experience some real joy leading up to a happy Easter. And that’s what I’ll offer as a prayer for all the men and women of Fordham in my Easter Mass.
Father Leo Daly, S.J.
Assistant Alumni Chaplain