I’m a Former Calvinist — Here’s How I Learned to Love the Beauty of Lent

‘Let us remember that love lives through sacrifice and is nourished by giving,’ says St. Maximilian Kolbe. ‘Without sacrifice, there is no love.’

‘The Year and Our Children’ by Mary Reed Newland
‘The Year and Our Children’ by Mary Reed Newland (photo: Sophia Institute Press)

Lent is a profoundly beautiful season, and therefore beckons the heart to do profoundly beautiful things for Our Lord and others.

It is a season where Christ Crucified touches your soul and inspires you to give and not count the cost — to forgive the one who has hurt you deeply, to lay down your life for a suffering friend, to be open to life when it is most difficult, to speak the truth when you know you will be persecuted for it, to be “another Christ” in a world that has disowned him. 

Providentially, the fertile ground of family life gives us many ways to embrace the true spirit of the Lenten Season, which is to live for the love of God and be a loyal friend of Christ, to the very end.

Recently, I asked two faithful priest-brothers what their family (of nine children) did in honor of Lent when they were growing up. I was astounded at what they told me. Not only did they go to Mass, recite the Rosary and pray the Stations of the Cross every day, but they also gave up all desserts and sweets as a family, along with most snacks. They made a weekly Holy Hour together as well. Both brothers expressed gratitude over the “diligent piety” of their parents, saying how much this family spirit of sacrifice nurtured their vocations to the priesthood and taught them what it really meant to love God and others.

As a former Calvinist, I have a deep appreciation for the season of Lent because it is a treasure chest I was never able to open until I became Catholic at age 22. Staunch Calvinists reject Lenten practices and even the whole idea of the liturgical season of Lent. When I was growing up, Easter just popped up suddenly out of “nowhere” after a mere Good Friday service. Our souls were not cleansed in celebration of Easter, and thus Easter was not a triumphant, victorious celebration of his Resurrection and the beatific vision which his death won for us. Now that I am a Catholic, I can see clearly what a marvelous work of divine wisdom Lent really is. It is truly a gift from God’s merciful hand to us, his children, so in need of guidance and grace. It is a tool to help us win the ultimate victory over sin and death, by the merits of the King of Glory, through the heart of Our Lady of Sorrows.

In her lovely, insightful book, The Year and Our Children (Sophia Institute Press, 2007), Mary Reed Newland writes:

The end of the penitential seasons imposed by the Church is not mere performance. The Church is a wise mother, who knows that the cutting away of our self-will frees our souls for a more radiant love affair with Christ. If we think of the penance without pondering its effect, we misunderstand it. It is not over and done with the doing but will bear fruit, if it is done with the right spirit; not alone by the piling up of ‘treasure in Heaven’ but by an increase in our taste for God, a change in the habits of our souls.

As we dive into the waters of Lenten sacrifices and sufferings, we can trust that by contemplating the magnanimous, undying love of the Crucified One, we will gain the strength to carry out our good resolutions while out at sea. After all, Lent is not so much about giving up things, but more so about receiving the presence of the Suffering Servant, the one who bears our crippling angst, lightens our heaviest sorrows, and inscribes our names on his Sacred Heart with his Most Precious Blood. As Newland continues:

Happily we have renewal in the sacraments after we have sinned — sacraments Christ gave His Church as a bridegroom gives wedding jewels to His bride. These are splendid refreshment for His members, fountains gushing from the opened side of the Man who is God and our Brother. Lent is our time to ponder these things, from the very beginning in sin to our renewal in Baptism. The Church says to us, ‘Look — you are dust. See what it has cost Him to love you!’”

As St. John of the Cross once said, “Love is repaid by love alone.” How can we love Him in return this Lenten Season in a life-changing way, in the footsteps of the Saints?