Catholic Spirituality,  Family Life,  Lent,  liturgical living,  prayer

Into the desert that is your actual life

Lent is upon us. A cursory social media scroll reveals the imminence of this penitential season, even as the shamrocks and easter eggs lining my supermarket shelves insist otherwise. “Nothing to see here, grab an armful of those 70% off valentines and gear up for the next holiday buying cycle.” (this is not a commentary on those wise parents who stock up ahead of time, or even a year in advance. You are smart people. This is merely a cynical eye roll at the frenetic urgings that YOU NEED TO THINK ABOUT THIS NEXT ESSENTIAL THING RIGHT NOW c/o the mass retailers of the world. Get behind me, easter bunny. Your day will come.)

Anyway, Lent. I have my ideas, and I’ve heard my people’s ideas via an informal roundtable discussion at the dinner table last weekend, during which certain members were not fully clothed and other members were hysterical. I will leave the specifics to the imagination.

I decided to spring for a princely portion of humility by querying the children as to what mommy’s good practice taken up (with the intent of continuing on beyond Lent) ought to be, and imagine my delight when 3 out of 4 (the dissenter being nonverbal-ish) unanimously ratified the motion that I “stop yelling all the time” with mere moments of deliberation. Would that the Supreme Court could achieve such concise unity.

I read something great last week about how as parents, we are our children’s spiritual directors, and so I figured it would be a good practice to encourage my directees to make some recommendations of their own for me, for transparency’s sake. I was not wrong.

Imagine my surprise, though, when my much-holier-than-me husband (not even a slight hint of sarcasm there, as anyone who knows Dave irl can attest to) remarked during our powwow that he wasn’t adding anything for Lent, because his – our – present circumstances are plenty penitential as is. And better to lean into that suffering and bear it well than to pile on top of it.

My choleric list making side was indignant, because what is Lent for – I mean, aside from the Church’s proscribed prayer, fasting, and almsgiving – if not embarking on ambitious purgatorial self improvement strategies?

I’m being only a little facetious. My understanding of Lent has graduated ever so slightly from liturgically-observant weight loss program so something, most years, a little more focused on Him and a little less focused on what’s in it for me.

But only just.

As I sat with Dave’s declaration rolling around in my brain later that evening, I realized how much wisdom and holiness it contained. There is some real merit to the idea of leaning into the sufferings already present in your life, whether it be a difficult season – and maybe a long one – in your marriage, a sick child, a defiant toddler, a sleepless newborn, a move, an illness, a loss, a frustrating “no” when yes was so desperately sought after… And maybe in leaning into that suffering of the life that God has actually given you, not the life you’re praying and longing for, but the life you’re living in this moment, there would be abundant grace not only to bear it, but to bear it with the potential for great fruitfulness.

I can definitely make time for more spiritual reading and less social media scrolling during these next 40 days. And I can stop yelling at my kids. And that one? That is a worthy and appropriate resolution because, yeah, I have 4 kids ages 6 and under. Very few people sleep all the hours all the nights, and diapers and pull-ups still abound. There are messes and chaos and endless cries for needs that I routinely fail to meet with charity, without grumbling, without resenting and seething and mentally counting down the hours till bedtime. And maybe in leaning into those long, hard afternoons, I can offer the Lord a more pleasing sacrifice than forgoing chocolate or coffee or the occasional nightcap.

So I guess this is the least inspiring and least proscriptive Lent-post ever. Because we are in a hard season – not the hardest, but one that stretches and pulls and wearies – and I know that a dozen tiny fiats to another load of laundry, another meal prepared, another moving box packed, another bag of trash to carry out, another hour spent reading bedtime stories and rubbing backs when I want to be watching an episode of something or reading my own book – I know that those are the gold nuggets in the mine of motherhood where I currently labor.

So that’s my Lenten plan. Stop complaining about everything, even interiorly. Especially interiorly?

Because they aren’t going to sleep reliably. Somebody is always sick – this week, it’s me. There will always be an unexpected bill, an unforeseen scheduling conflict, a frustrating door slamming shut, a toy room wrecked and a minivan wrecked-er. And God knows that. Gosh, it’s almost like He custom tailored it just for me. So Lord, here’s to a Lent of Your design and not my own.

That being said, I do have a couple external aids in place, should the REM cycles align and allow me some free time in the evenings or early mornings.

I had the chance to review an advance copy of this book by Heidi Hess Saxton on the spirituality of Mother Teresa, and I really, really love it. I normally don’t prefer books of the “day-by-day” variety, but maybe because Mama T is so rich in profound simplicity, these little readings stand on their own, and I find myself returning to them throughout the day, and skipping defiantly ahead to the next day. I am hoping to go back and read it day by day during Lent, as it was designed, probably first thing in the morning, maybe even before coffee because that seems like a super MC move.

I also preordered the gorgeous Blessed Is She Lenten journal “Put on Love” and am dying to get into it, and have in fact given myself absolution from writing in my normal journal at all during Lent to try to drive my own mental traffic there. (I pretty much have to be exclusive with one journal at a time, which is why prayer journals usually fail me, but this one is so beautiful and the layout is so good that I think I can do it.)

I just happened to have this succulent lying around to incorporate into this otherwise completely natural and unstaged photo.

What are your plans for Lent this year?

What are the Lord’s plans for your Lent, this year?

If they’re already synched up, then you’re golden. If this post threw you for a loop like Dave’s pronouncement did for me the other night, well, then you’ve got a solid day or so to better align the two. Good luck.


  • MK

    Excellent, Jenny – and Dave! I have been thinking along these lines and just might incorporate this idea for Lent. Sharing with my husband, too. He is planning a more serious fast, so please pray for him (B)!

  • Karyn

    Morning sickness and fatigue are kicking in for me right in time for Lent. I’m reading a book for Lent but my other practices are to remember to offer up my discomfort for others and to try to not complain and whine (at least not too much, lol). May you have a blessed Lent, Jenny!

  • Sarah

    Yes to all of this. I am so bad at handling the day to day sacrifices and little sufferings. I wonder what merit there would be in adding in other things if I can’t suffer the ordinary well? Thanks for the food for thought!

  • Kristal

    This is so relatable, so hilarious, with a punch in the stomach profundity as I find in so much of your writing, Jenny. Please don’t stop. Please keep seeking God, maturity, love and tell us all about it. Your efforts are bearing fruit in my life and I’m sure so many others. Thank you.

  • Ari

    I recently had a miscarriage. I was planning on being pregnant this Lent and being exempt from a few of the fasts because I was already in major suffering and giving up coffee, alcohol, etc. Now that I’m physically “normal,” I have to come up with something instead of doing a cop-out/default Lent. Leaning into the suffering, now that’s a great thought…

  • Kerry

    Ahh, Lent! My daughter, who is disabled, celebrates her birth on March 1. For the first 4-5 years of her life, she turns 7 tomorrow!, Lent lasted all year for me. So when it showed up on the Liturgical calendar I didn’t give it much more thought. Life was hard those years, the suffering was real. The past couple of years I have reclaimed Lent. It has been good to remember that we are not the only family who struggles everyday with living. It has been good to step out from under our own rock and take a look around. I am looking forward to Lent. It is time for me to refocus and reprioritize. I look forward to Mathew Kelly’s Best Lent Ever to help. I know our Lord has much to tell me, much to show me and I am ready! Happy Lent!

  • jeanette

    Even though our life suffering plates can be full, I don’t think it dispenses one from purposefully considering this Lenten growth opportunity and choosing deliberate ways of living out the season of Lent.

    I’ve got a lot of suffering going on right now in life, but that is not the final word on Lent for me. It is the Lenten sacrifices which will strengthen me to “lean into” the ones already present. Mortifications do strengthen you. That is THE only reason we do them in the first place. I don’t see them as “piled on top” of my sufferings, but rather undergirding them. It actually allows you to step outside of the problems that burden you and focus more on overcoming frailties that keep us from “leaning into” our problems. So, if you simply choose to allow the difficulties of life to be your “fasting”, then it really has to be very deliberate, otherwise you will not really take advantage of the growth that can and should happen during Lent.

    Perhaps your prayer life is weak or miniscule? Then adding something for Lent is fully appropriate regardless of what is going on in life, and again, it will support the struggles you are facing, because prayer is the reinforcement of the love relationship you have with God. It is the place where you acknowledge His action in your life. If things are tough, you really should be wanting to spend a little more deliberate time with Him. If you don’t yearn for that, all the more reason you should increase your prayer life.

    Then of course we have almsgiving. If you are struggling financially, for instance, you still can give alms. You still can sacrifice something, no matter how small it may seem, and give the monetary sacrifice to the poor. You are not going to benefit if you just say, oh we are strapped right now, that’s suffering enough. We are on the verge of losing our house, that is enough. We don’t have the money to replace our car, that is enough. It really is not enough. If anything, it should draw you to more compassion for the poor who are out there and help you realize that yes, there is someone worse off than me. And it should draw you to love them and want to help them in the same measure you want God to assist you. If you truly haven’t a cent to give, it can be something else. Your almsgiving can take the form of giving time to someone by lending them a helping hand or listening ear when you otherwise might not, especially if you feel burdened by life already. It is all about turning outward towards others, not inward on self.

    The Church recommends prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. These 3 work together. As one listens to and follows the recommendations of our Holy Mother the Church, one will prosper spiritually during this Lenten season. That’s my way of thinking, at least. Maybe because I’ve lived life a long time, and by the grace of God have felt the effects of Lenten practices. : )

    • Jean

      With all due respect, Jeanette, I think it’s a mistake to judge what is and isn’t “enough” in terms of other people’s sacrifices. I believe most if not all of us who come to this blog understand we can always do more when it comes to fasting, prayer and almsgiving, but I, too, have lived a long time, thanks be to God, and each Lent and Easter has been a different experience. Some years the “leaning in” Jenny describes has been as much of a sacrifice as I could manage. Wearing a hair shirt, literally or figuratively, would not have made my Lenten offering more or less worthy. God asks as sacrifice our contrite hearts and broken spirits offered up in faith whether in addition to or as all we can give at the time. I’m not disputing the Church’s teaching on prayers, fasting and almsgiving, but I think each of us with an informed conscience knows where we stand when it comes to “enough” or not and in the end God is the judge of our sacrifices. Prayers for you in your suffering and wishing you a well kept Lent.

      • jeanette

        Yes, you are right. It is wrong to judge the application of what is enough for one or another person, and I am sorry if my description comes out that way, that’s my failure in how I express myself. My point can maybe be better stated as: create a deliberate penitential intention in order to actually draw profit from it. I’m strictly looking at it from a spiritual growth point of view in the recommendations of the Church for Lent. I’m also trying to reinforce the idea that one truly does grow from the act of deliberately mortifying one’s life, which is not a recommendation for hairshirts or any practices like that. If it feels like it is just piling on more, which is what I assume was what Jenny’s husband was cautioning against, then it likely isn’t an appropriate choice. That’s why I applied the word “undergirding” in my description of the relationship of a mortification to one’s suffering. It takes time to discern that connection. I was trying to remind people why the Church makes this recommendation, and at the same time point out the connection of all 3 recommended practices working together, not just a laundry list of things to do. I guess you might say I’m more inclined towards thinking about the unity of the purpose and how it is intended to support one’s belief in the graces God will give you for that struggle. We are limited, but He is not. We need not be afraid of our limitations, but we do need to remember we do not do this alone. You are right, our conscience will inform us on the point of what is “enough” in our lenten penances.

        Thank you for your prayers and your many well thought-out insights as well.

  • Melissa

    I haven’t hammered home what my lent will look like for me personally, but last year I was newly postpartum and *that* was my lent. So this year I want to do more as a family, since we never really have. We have a prayer chain so that we can pray for others daily and deliberately and we are doing the “bean jar.” I think the bean jar actually works really well with what you’ve written here. For every small daily sacrifice we make, without grumbling, for good listener, for prompt obedience (this goes for the kids AND us parents) a bean goes in the jar and hopefully we can try to remember that since Jesus gave it all, we can give this one small thing, whatever that is. And prayer….always need more prayer.

  • Maureen

    Great inspiration, something to “sip on” and while reflecting on such a unique take on Lenten fasting, sacrificing and minor suffering. It is already Fat Tuesday and you have helped me to finalize my Lenten plan! I am new to your blog and I would like to thank you for you insight and honest, Mom-musings. God bless you and your family!

  • Christine

    This nearly brought tears to my eyes…. It’s been a rough afternoon with the toddlers, and I was feeling defeated about adding a big Lenten sacrifice in the mix. Thank you for the wise words! I’m feeling so much more encouraged. 🙂 God bless! 🙂

  • Lauren Montgomery

    I love it Jenny! I think we could all lean a bit more into our own crosses. (I know I can!) I am planning on setting a bedtime, and a morning wake up time. By the time the kids are in bed I find myself squandering away time just because I don’t have a toddler or baby on my lap. I end up going to bed way too late, then waking up way too grouchy (sadly, on a daily basis)–so I think this will help me lean into my own cross a bit, with love (and energy).
    Father Mike Schmitz said that going to bed too late is vanity, and that going to bed with time to get enough rest means really putting trust in God. Instead of dreading the new set of chores and workload for the next day, you trust that God will get you through the day with all the strength you need. We’ll see how it goes!

    • MK

      Wow, this is great! Lauren, I do the same thing and I know I’m a different person when I go to sleep at night. (Also, trying to function at work is a whole other ball game on poor sleep…) I think I may have to incorporate this because I am very tempted to stay up late and my husband is too. With me being at an office 3x a week (I work from home 2x a week, too) it’s the only time we have but it often winds up extending to very late hours. Do you know where Fr. Mike talked about this (article, video etc.)? If so, could you share a link? Thanks!

      Wishing everyone here a holy Lent and a good fast today.

    • Jenny Uebbing

      What wisdom! That really helps to think of it as vanity, which I guess is a needless self indulgence/being overly focused on self … staying up past 10, for me, with kids, is definitely unwise and unrealistic and needlessly complicates our next morning, but I’ve never stopped to consider how selfish it is, too, since it “makes” me into a terrible monster to the people whom my vocation has entrusted me with.

      (And of course, what we’re talking about here the voluntary staying up late which I’m sooooo guilty of these days. Not the sleep deprivation bootcamp that is life with little babies or special needs kids)

    • Judith

      Thank you for this reminder, Lauren! I was just talking about this with my husband a week or so ago…that I tend to stay up too late, frittering away time after the kids are in bed just because I crave the quiet. But it’s not time that’s necessarily spent productively, either for the home or spiritually. More just “zoning out” kind of time. So I was wondering if going to bed “on time” would be an appropriate Lenten offering, and the video from Fr. Mike just confirmed it for me! May you all have a blessed Lent.

  • Carol

    One can apply this to life with teenagers. Yes, having toddlers was brutal at times. But this introverted mom really struggles with 2 teenagers and activities almost every night some weeks . (And we truly don’t overextend ourselves.). So I will join toddler moms and not complain and give it up. Will combine this with my blessed is she Lenten journal. Started this morning when grace woke me early. Also my kids don’t like the yelling. Yikes that hit home. Interestingly my dad commented once that his mom didn’t yell near as much when she was a grandma than he remembered growing up. That gave me hope on those trying days. Thankful for the wisdom of age.

  • Jean

    My husband and I attended the evening Ash Wednesday service and Mass last night at our fully packed church. As this isn’t a holy day of obligation in Canada we were overjoyed to see so many people in attendance of all ages and stages in life. In his homily our pastor spoke of Lenten practices discussed in this blog and the reasons why we undertake them. As Jeanette pointed out in her reply to my comment “We need not be afraid of our limitations but we do need to remember we do not do this alone….” There is power in our united purpose, supported by the grace of God, the Communion of Saints as we turn away from sin and turn back towards Him. To that end our pastor entrusted our parish to the protection of St. Michael the Archangel during Lent as we prayed the St. Michael prayer together before the Consecration.

    I thought about and prayed for all of you – your struggles, pain, losses as well as your joys and added my own intentions. Whatever we take upon ourselves/give up/do for during Lent may we not become discouraged, and if we do slip in our practices let’s get back on board with them to the best of our ability and with a sense of purpose and joy because we know how this Lenten journey ends and it’s worth the effort.

  • Evelyn

    So good. We have the same Meyer-Brigg result… and from time to time your words speak right to me…personalities struggles in particular. This one was no different. Strangely enough, what your husband said to you this year mine said last year. Ha! I’d totally forgot (and failed to take it to heart last year) and would love to try again. We’ve got three under three, post op annoyances and stomach flus as I write. And I was thinking about Lent and what to “do”/stop doing. I’ll pray to embrace the season as it is and turn off my mental radio and tune in else where. Many thanks!

  • KAthleen

    I had lent’s like you describe, where surviving with out curling up into a ball was the best I could do. This Lent is the first in a couple of years where I am not nursing or pregnant and my kids are sleeping through the night (mostly).. So I feel pressure to be more “hardcore.” But my spiritual director said I should just pick something small and do it well then do all the things and then be need deep in chocolate and wine by week 3. haha. Anyway, thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  • Cami

    Baby #4 is expected any day. My boys are 5 and 4, my daughter is 2, and we currently homeschool kindergarten and pre-k. Our house is utter chaos with no decor up yet. I’m feeling very inadequate for all of this. Additionally, my husband just lost his 2nd job which puts the food on the table as well as provides diapers, wipes, and any necessities beyond bills. So it’s looking like our Lent is more of trusting in God’s provision, maintaining peace in uncertainty, leaning into the suffering, accepting that we are far from comfortable, and waiting on the Lord. God really does choose your Lent for you.

    • jeanette

      Cami: I’m a “baby #4” myself, so my prayers to you in this time of expectation and for a safe delivery and all the blessings your family needs and support and encouragement each day. May St. Joseph especially assist your husband in providing for your family and gaining employment that meets his needs in that important role as father of a growing family.

      My parents had 7 children, and when my oldest sister announced to my father she was pregnant with baby #4 I was standing right there. My dad got a grave look of concern on his face. I’ll never forget that. Her husband was working on his degree and she was the one supporting the family at the time. They went on to have 2 more children for a total of 6, and she became a stay-at-home mother for quite a lot of years before returning to the work force. Finances can be tough at such times, but things usually will get better over time.

      On the practical help side of things, the federal WIC nutrition supplement program is available, and you may qualify (perhaps you already know about WIC, but if not, look it up). Also, talk to your parish St. Vincent de Paul group for identifying any other resources available that might assist you in this time of financial need for your family’s particular circumstances.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *