Having a Good/Bad Lent

There are many ways of being a pilgrim, only one of which is to go physically to some special – preferably tried and true and holy – destination. That’s my favorite way, since (at least in theory), it gets body, mind, and spirit all moving in the same direction.* In practice, of course, it’s more complicated than that because, in a fallen world, human life has become complicated. Even at the natural level, people we meet every day are often engaged in enormous struggles just to be normal. And at the spiritual level, the pathways get steep and rocky. Fast.

Lent should remind us – we’re often told – that all of us are on a spiritual pilgrimage, whether we know it or not. It’s good to be reminded of that, but it can make it seem that a “good” Lent will be orderly, peaceful, gently leading us to “see God” more clearly. That’s so, sometimes. But is a “good Lent” only one that meets our expectations? Strangely,  sometimes a “bad” Lent can be better.

Prayer is hard. If you try to pray better – at regular times and undistracted – and find you can’t do it for forty days, let alone a few minutes, the failure (the bad) can be good, not in itself of course, but because it shows reality: our distance from God and helplessness without Him – a truth we may have simply to endure until we receive the grace to change.

Fasting is (obviously) hard. Doubly so when done not for self-interested reasons like losing weight or “taking charge” of your life, but for the distant goal that the struggles in prayer make plain. None of us can fully “take charge” of our lives, as important as small improvements can be, because human life by nature is beyond complete human control, perhaps never more so than when we think it’s not.  Various episodes in the Bible of peoples striving to live without God or, in our times, the horrors produced by various forms of atheist totalitarianism are cautionary tales.

Almsgiving shouldn’t be hard, especially in affluent societies like ours. By international standards, Americans practice an exceptional amount of “philanthropy.” But Jesus seems to have something more radical in mind about doing good to others, our becoming “perfect.” (Mt. 5:48)

St. John Henry Newman explains in his “simple rule of life”:

It is the saying of holy men that, if we wish to be perfect, we have nothing more to do than to perform the ordinary duties of the day well. A short road to perfection – short, not because easy, but because pertinent and intelligible. There are no short ways to perfection, but there are sure ones. I think this is an instruction which may be of great practical use to persons like ourselves. It is easy to have vague ideas what perfection is, which serve well enough to talk about, when we do not intend to aim at it; but as soon as a person really desires and sets about seeking it himself, he is dissatisfied with anything but what is tangible and clear, and constitutes some sort of direction towards the practice of it.

Our notions of “perfection” often tend to make it into something impossible. Newman helps by offering a definition, “By perfect we mean that which has no flaw in it, that which is complete, that which is consistent, that which is sound.” Practically, this means:

Do not lie in bed beyond the due time of rising; give your first thoughts to God; make a good visit to the Blessed Sacrament; say the Angelus devoutly; eat and drink to God’s glory; say the Rosary well; be recollected; keep out bad thoughts; make your evening meditation well; examine yourself daily; go to bed in good time, and you are already perfect.

Good advice, if more difficult than it sounds.


A Catholic, then, does not need to go in search of special experiences like personal revelations, mystical visions, messages from the other world. The Church has always been very cautious about such matters – even at first a great Marian appearance like Fatima – because it’s easy to be deceived about things that are, by nature, beyond us.

But I feel compelled to add something I’ve never mentioned anywhere, the kind of thing you shouldn’t much talk about, but may be of help at our present, greatly agitated moment.

In 2015, during the second Synod on the Family – when things in Rome seemed, very much like now, which is to say, in an uproar – I took a long walk one evening along the Tiber River. Just below the Church of Saint Bartholomew on Tiber Island, while listening to a recording of Caccini’s Ave Maria (not the usual one, but this one). I had a sudden in-rush of – I don’t know what – say, God’s immense mercy and tenderness.

For just an instant – because if I hadn’t turned away, I’d have been annihilated. Still, a glimpse of something that made all the synodal distress, which was just beginning, seem tiny compared to the divine immensity.

Years later, I realized that I first heard the Caccini Ave Maria in the museum next to Dante’s tomb in Ravenna. In Paradiso, Dante often speaks of the light in Heaven being so bright that he has to shade his eyes or turn away. By slow steps, his sight grows strong enough to endure the Beatific Vision. I also remembered this passage from Paradiso 28:

I saw a point that sent forth so acute
a light, that anyone who faced the force
with which it blazed would have to shut his eyes . . .

My lady, who saw my perplexity —
I was in such suspense — said: “On that Point
depend the heavens and the whole of nature.”

Yes, I know, maybe just a literary fancy. And again, not an experience a Catholic needs to seek. But in the midst of the toil and trouble inside and outside us these days, perhaps something to keep up courage along the way, on pilgrimage.

* Post scriptum, a one-day Lenten walking pilgrimage in Florida, sponsored by the Order of Malta, is coming soon, on March 4 (if interested, click here). Last year, I did their longer 3-day, 30-mile Advent pilgrimage from Jacksonville Beach to the Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche in St. Augustine – one of the earliest sites where Mass was said in what is now the United States. A marvelous experience. More on that another day.


**Image: Rosa Celeste: Dante and Beatrice gaze upon the highest Heaven, The Empyrean (Paradiso Canto 31) by Gustave Doré, 1868 [Hachette and Co., Paris, France]

You may also enjoy:

Father Paul D. Scalia’s Inward and Outward

David Warren’s Fridays in Lent

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.