St. John Vianney (1786-1859, Ars, France) was a man sought far and wide for his wisdom and spiritual counsel. He spent countless hours in the confessional, hearing thousands of confessions every year. His homilies and guidance were always in his own down-to-earth style. One day, a woman of obvious means came to him and asked a simple question, "What must I do to reduce [lose weight]?" He looked her up and down, noting her fine jewelry and clothing, and her girth, and replied, "About three Lents." It was not well received, to say the least. She was perhaps looking for an easy answer, his response gave none. He read her soul and found that her size was due to a spiritual malady - perhaps greed, gluttony, or sloth - that could only be cured by entering into a penitential season such as Lent.
The danger is that we too often approach Lent with the opposite attitude. We might be tempted to see it as a period of self-improvement. Looking at the number on the scale or noticing the tightness of our clothing, we might decide that this Lent is a great time to diet. We might be tempted, as we look around, to see the people who might benefit from our charity, and so we create a program for giving. We might be aware of a little addiction (chocolate or candy, pop, TV, etc), and decide Lent is a good time to face that. As good-hearted as these kinds of things are, however, they are not Lent. These things can turn Lent into a self-improvement project.
Lent, which we are entering this week, is about seeking God and His will. We ought to always seek to eliminate from our lives the things that distract us from God and those things to which we are 'inordinately attached' - those things that take too much of our time and attention compared to their eternal value. Lent is about allowing God's grace to transform us, not about our improving ourselves. While it might be true that we see the same effects, we enter Lent to fast, not to diet. We seek to give alms, not to seek reward for charitable giving. We seek the Lord in prayer, not just of self-reflection. We might not need to enter Lent for the same reason as the woman that St. John Vianney encountered, but we need Lent. Let's enter it well, seeking the Lord and His grace, so that as we gather to celebrate Christ's resurrection, we may do so with hearts set free.