As of this writing, it is the 4th week of Lent.
Last Sunday, Laetare Sunday, marked the halfway point of Lent. There is something about Lent that brings up the many lessons I have learned and reveals the many ways I have to learn them again.
Many will adopt a spiritual program for the season, often using devotional books, personal sacrifices, or additional prayers. My Lent began, unintentionally, with reading “Work in Progress”, a new book by Julia Marie Hogan Werner.
We are Works in Progress
As the title suggests, we are Works in Progress, a concept so simple and so helpful it’s unbelievable. The ideas, Werner presents are meaty, long-accepted and understood concepts in cognitive behavioral therapy. Werner opens with the question “Who Are You?” to introduce the issues often faced in the United States in reaching that elusive stage of adulthood, and having the life we desire, filled with authenticity and purpose. Most of us do not know who we are. We might have a sense of what we value, but all too often the circumstances of life overwhelm us. What we prioritize with our time gets determined either by a disordered sense of who we are or what is happening right now, rather than our values.
But, when our priorities are determined by our values and not just what’s happening right now, and we have a sense of who we are grounded in the truth rather than by the narratives we learned as children, false beliefs or expectations about ourselves, or trauma. Then we can begin to order our lives according to our true dignity and the values we hold. When we do this, our lives begin to take the shape of the life we envision for ourselves, the ones filled with meaning and purpose. And this is the key to happiness.
Stopping, looking and listening
The book has me examining and considering my approach to things of late, which is quite the goal of Lent, as well, to examine one’s conscience, place and progress in the spiritual journey.
According to Werner, there are two paths our thinking can take when we get together with some of the “false friends” Werner identifies: going with the flow and never really feeling in control or trying to control everything (the perfectionist falls into the latter).
And so the usual pattern for many a practitioner of Lenten disciplines is to see, first, the perfectionist in those first two weeks of Lent. Dedicated, focused, zealous in his commitments, he dives wholeheartedly into the process. But then the bite comes on after that time, the pleasure of change diminishes and the work becomes difficult.
Stages of Lent
In the third week, many a devotee begins to lag. This starts the opportunity to see one’s weaknesses and be reminded, “It is okay to be weak,” and see that suffering, weakness, and that lack of the strong-man within oneself, as a wake-up in humility, an opportunity to draw on the spiritual resources available during this time, to pray for grace, if you will.
And on comes Laetare Sunday, with the liturgical mandate “Rejoice!” Rejoice at what? There is so much darkness in the world, so many daily struggles, so many personal crises. Yet, the word, “Rejoice!” still sounds.
It means to spur us on. I am reminded of Werner’s book again. The author points out that disordered ways of thinking often stem from beliefs we hold, like lenses through which we perceive and understand our actions and the actions of others. Perfectionism stems from the belief that “I am not enough,” or “Failure is unacceptable.”
Werner offers the response.
There is nothing we can do to add to or diminish our dignity or worth as persons. We cannot earn it because it is inherent in our being. Perfectionism promotes the personal lie that worth must be earned. If we fail, if we are weak, we are not enough.
So Lent continues to work the heart through the stages of change. From the contemplation stage of realizing the things one must work on, we move to the preparation stage of committing oneself to the discipline of change. Then on to the action stage of carrying out one’s commitment, and finally, to the maintenance stage of keeping the work going. The stages are cyclical. We will fall back and need to realize these lessons once again.
Thus the strength of these six weeks, these forty days, to remind us and aid us in our understanding that, as Werner says, we are Works in Progress.