How to Observe Lent When You’re Already Suffering

By Marc Massery

Fatigue, fever, chest pain, trouble breathing, vomiting, and coughing up blood. These are some of the symptoms of tuberculosis, the debilitating illness that ultimately took the life of St. Faustina in 1938 when she was just 33 years old. But they could easily describe the symptoms of the coronavirus — the illness that for the past year has dramatically changed all of our lives.

As we approach the season of Lent, the season of penance and sacrifice, which begins Feb. 17, many of you may be thinking to yourself, “Why should I choose to ‘suffer’ more, as a spiritual practice, when we’ve already suffered so much this year?”

After all, social distancing, lockdowns, quarantines, and political unrest have caused many of us to feel lonelier and more isolated than ever. Many business owners and their families have lost their livelihoods, while other businesses struggle to keep their doors open. Consider the impact the global pandemic has had on young children, whose most formative years took place during this crisis separated from their peers, educators, and pastors.

Nearly all of us, to some extent, will experience the psychological effects of this global disaster for years to come. And what about those who had already been suffering before the pandemic? Surely it has magnified their pain. And of course, let’s not forget those who have tragically suffered and died from the virus itself and the hundreds of thousands of families in the United States alone who have had to bid their loved ones goodbye.

Though the arrival of a vaccination has served as a sign of hope for many, things haven’t yet gone back to the way they were. Against this backdrop of worldwide struggle and uncertainty, it makes sense if you’re dreading a season dedicated to penance. So this year, instead of depriving yourself of something that helps you cope, remember that there’re plenty of precedents for adding a prudent spiritual practice during Lent, especially when you’ve already been suffering.

Saint Faustina provides the perfect example for us. She wanted to fast during Lent, but her debilitating illness presented an obstacle. Taking her condition and circumstances into account, her confessor encouraged her to continue to eat, but he asked her to “meditate on how the Lord Jesus, on the Cross, accepted vinegar and gall” (Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, 618) while she ate. She wrote:

This would be my mortification. I did not know that this would be so beneficial to my soul. The benefit is that I am meditating constantly on His sorrowful Passion and so, while I am eating, I am not preoccupied with what I am eating, but am reflecting on my Lord’s death. (618)

The Lord must have had a hand in prescribing this penance for her because it smacks of prudence and spiritual reverence. It shows that not all penances need to be arduous. The word “penance,” after all, is not necessarily synonymous with great pain. “Penance” derives from a Latin word that means “to be sorry.” Saint Faustina’s penance, meditating on the Lord’s Passion while she ate, surely inspired a sense of sorrow within her.

Several times in her Diary, St. Faustina writes about how much of an effort it often took her to eat (see 1428-1429). So in a sense, it may have been a bit more of a sacrifice for St. Faustina to eat rather than fast. But of course, when one is sick, one needs nourishment if one wants a chance at regaining health. Saint Faustina’s confessor, therefore, came up with the perfect solution to both sustain her physical health and help her observe Lent with due reverence.

During this global pandemic, we’re all suffering, if not physically then at least emotionally. So, this Lent, let’s choose a spiritual practice that improves our mental or physical health, which also inspires within us a sense of sorrow for our sins.

Exercise is crucial for both mental and physical health: How about a walk every day while meditating on the Lord’s Passion? So is healthy eating: How about instead of fast food, you cook a healthy meal while meditating on the Lord’s Passion? We all need recreation: How about spending more time drawing, playing an instrument, snowshoeing, or whatever recreation you enjoy most — while meditating on the Lord’s Passion?

Whatever you find edifying, whatever healthy outlet nourishes you, think about doing more of it this Lent, and like St. Faustina did, meditate upon the Lord’s Passion while doing it.

Spiritually nourishing but prudent — these are the kinds of penances the Lord must want us to observe this Lent. And if we’re to take a lesson from St. Faustina, we would do well to look for the blessings and graces the Lord is bestowing upon us amidst our suffering. She wrote:

I made an hour of adoration in thanksgiving for the graces which had been granted me and for my illness. Illness also is a great grace. (1062)

Discovering that St. Faustina thanked the Lord for her illness may sound unsettling at first. Then again, Catholicism is a religion of paradoxes. We call the Friday upon which the Lord suffered and died “good.” I would understand if you’re not ready to thank the Lord for the coronavirus yet. But we’d be remiss if we didn’t consider the blessings and graces that the Lord has bestowed upon us this past year amidst our pain and suffering. Because in the end, all pain and suffering will pass away. But the Lord’s goodness, His blessings, and His graces endure forever.


Photo by Annika Gordon on Unsplash.