“Do not let the way your prayer and penance feel right now discourage you.”
As we approach everyone’s favorite time of year, it’s a good time to remember the place of “feelings” in the spiritual life.
Maybe Lent isn’t your favorite time of year. It isn’t mine. But that doesn’t change the fact that we need times of fast in our lives. As I’ve written here before, if we are going to properly feast, we must properly fast.
This year, you might not be feeling particularly drawn to giving anything up for Lent or embracing extra penance. Perhaps it feels as if we’ve already given up so much. Maybe we’ve lost family members or jobs. We miss our families and friends and social lives. Our mental health may be suffering.
Why should we give anything else up?
Perhaps your spiritual life feels pretty dry right now. Thinking about giving something up for Lent might feel like you’re simply going through the motions.
I challenge you to go through those motions.
Sometimes prayer and penance feels particularly rewarding. At times, I can really feel God’s presence in prayer. I leave my time of morning prayer feeling particularly comforted. Maybe I’m praying for clarity or an intention and I get it fairly easily. At these times, it felt good to pray. There have been times in my life when the penance I adopted for Lent or for a particular intention felt rewarding. It was a struggle, but a fruitful one. It was the feeling of that last sprint in the race, when your legs and lungs are screaming for you to quit, but pressing on, you’re rewarded with that euphoria of accomplishment and perseverance. In a strange way, even the struggle of penance felt good.
Other times, there’s no feeling. Prayer is a drudgery. Penance seems forced and futile.
It’s in these moments that we press on. Father Francis Fernandez speaks about this time of aridity in prayer: “The person who is determined to keep up his prayer even in times of aridity, when all feeling is absent, is perhaps like him who draws water from a well, bucket by bucket: one aspiration after another, an act of sorrow … It is hard work and it demands effort, but he does draw out water.”
Do not let the way your prayer and penance feel right now discourage you. The prayer that you say with little consolation is just as powerful – perhaps in some ways, more powerful. It is good to feel God’s presence in prayer, of course, but is that the only reason I pray? It is good to feel as if my penance is fruitful, but perhaps I’m also being called to offer up the fact that it doesn’t feel fruitful at all.
“To allow oneself to be guided by feelings would be like handing over the management of one’s house to a servant whilst you as its real owner abdicate responsibility for it. It is not feelings that are bad, but rather the degree of importance we attribute to them.” (J. Tissot, The Interior Life)
It’s good to feel good! But it’s not the measure of fruitfulness. If I don’t feel God, it doesn’t mean He’s not listening.
Maybe you, like me, are approaching this Lent with some weariness and wariness. Do I really have to sacrifice anything else? Maybe it seems as if Lent 2020 began and never ended.
As old as all of this feels, the Lord wants to do something new. No matter how it might feel, perhaps we should let him.
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