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Overwhelming sorrow during Lent: How do I deal with it?

February 24, 2010 by  
Filed under Dan Burke, Guilt, Lent, Seasonal Meditations, Suffering

Dear Catholic Spiritual Direction: We are but days into Lent, and, after being to our church's Way of the Cross tonight, I'm overwhelmed with the “low” that Lent is already. Are we to embrace the low to make the joy of Easter even greater, or is there still joy to be found in the 40 days of the Lenten journey? If it's intended to be 40 days of all low, how do we prevent ourselves from being overcome with the grief and depression that accompanies our reflection of what Christ endured for us sinners, especially when our focus is on his suffering rather than his resurrection during this season?

These are important questions; let's take them one at a time.

First, embrace the lows of Lent to make the joy of Easter greater? Absolutely. This is the wisdom of the Church. Without suffering it is very difficult for us, in our broken state, to fully experience the joy that God has for us. Kahlil Gibran echoed this thought when he said, “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain… When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you will see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.” So it is with Lent. The deeper we allow the sorrow to carve into our being during Lent, the more joy we will experience when we celebrate his resurrection!

Second, is there any joy found during Lent? Without a doubt. When Mel Gibson was making The Passion of The Christ, he ran into a problem. He recognized that the scenes of Christ's sufferings were too much to take in any one sitting. He came up with the idea to intersperse flashbacks into the story. This gave just enough relief without totally leaving the theme of Christ's horrific suffering and death on our behalf. Similarly, during Lent, every Sunday we have a time where we can set aside our fasting and remember not only his suffering but also his resurrection and provision for us in the Mass. Beyond this gift, we maintain our composure through all this because we know the end of the story. Those of us who suffer from lifelong illnesses sometimes are overwhelmed because in the midst of our suffering we don't know if it will end in this life. With Lent we not only know the end of the story, but we even know the exact date when it it will end. This should give us the courage to persevere through the challenges and purification this season brings to our souls.

A few more points about grief and depression. It is one thing to feel great sorrow over our sins and to thereby enter into the deep sufferings of Christ, and another to enter into anything like clinical depression or any other unhealthy spiritual or emotional state. With respect to the former, St. Teresa of Avila, after meditating on Christ's sufferings on her behalf, would often become overwhelmed with grief and weeping for lengthy periods time. The harm done? Absolutely none. In fact, she attributes a great deal of the work of God in her soul, and the souls of other holy men and women, to this kind of affective meditation. How can you tell the difference? The difference is that someone who is truly experiencing union with Christ and his sufferings will experience two things:

1) Peace: Even with intense suffering of this kind, if we maintain peace in the depths of our souls and feel a greater compulsion to love him for what he has done for us, this is a good indicator that our sorrow is truly godly sorrow rather than an unhealthy state of depression.

2) Virtue: If our heightened sense of his love for us and our corresponding love for him leads us to deepen our prayer, expand our acts of charity, or further intensify our mortification, then, again, our suffering is likely sourced in God's real and active presence in our meditation.

St. Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians clearly echoes these truths (emphasis mine):

As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting; for you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death. For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, what eagerness to clear yourselves… what longing, what zeal …!

Finally, if you find yourself with a sorrow that does not meet the test of “godly sorrow” you can do two things about it. First, go absorb yourself in service to others – particularly those less fortunate than you. If the enemy is behind the anxiety in your heart, responding with love toward God and others will drive this oppression away. If you continue to struggle, make sure you talk with your spiritual director to get more specific insights into how you can make this season one in which you grow in your love and knowledge of Christ and in the virtuous life.

He is real, present, and good… may he always be so to you,


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About Dan Burke

Dan is the President of the Avila Foundation, the parent organization of, the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, Divine Intimacy Radio and Divine Intimacy Radio - Resources Edition, Into the Deep Parish Programs, the Apostoli Viae (Apostles of the Way) Community, and the FireLight Student Leadership Formation Program, author of the award-winning book, Navigating the Interior Life - Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God, Finding God Through Meditation-St. Peter of Alcantara, 30 Days with Teresa of Avila, Into the Deep, Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Thérèse of Lisieux, and his newest book The Contemplative Rosary with St. John Paul II and St. Teresa of Avila. Beyond his "contagious" love for Jesus and His Church, he is a grateful husband and father of four, the Executive Director of and writer for EWTN's National Catholic Register, a regular co-host on Register Radio, a writer and speaker who provides online spiritual formation and travels to share his conversion story and the great riches that the Church provides us through authentic Catholic spirituality. Dan has been featured on EWTN's Journey Home program and numerous radio programs.

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  • frkeithjeffires

    I agree with Dan in that it may be a good idea to find those less fortunate than ourselves and immerse yourself in their predicament and suffering which often extends beyond the Lenten Period. Being alongside such people helps put our plight into a new perspective. All things are only comparison. We need to be brought low in order to reach and enjoy the fact of our redemption and the price paid.

  • This post has been very helpful for me. I am devoted to the Divine Mercy and try to pray the Chaplet when I can. When I do, I often feel so bad for what He endured for me. I find myself wanting to truly be with Him in His Passion.

    Last Lent, I could feel His peace even as I was with Him in His suffering.

    But recently, I grew frightened. I’m not sure why or how but I became terrified at the thought that I my prayers would be answered. This was followed by a severe wave of guilt. I thought that in being afraid I was abandoning Him. This lasted for a few days. Though by God’s grace there were moments which assuaged my depression.

    What you warned of at the end of this article, I think this may have been what happened to me.

    But Father, it still bothers me because the Chaplet has been my devotion for years. And I can’t help but feel that this experience has tainted it. By no means do I want to stop praying it. And I’m trying to get back on track.
    I’m scared that I’ll fall into the same trap again.

    Is it really wrong to pray that you want to suffer with Him? Because I’m sincere in my prayer. I can’t stop myself from praying this way. I was also sincere during Lent but it was this same prayer that caused that horrible day. Please help me!

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