When considering saintly masters for Lent, I would direct attention to St. Ignatius of Loyola. He went through an extraordinary religious conversion as a young man and then spent a year living in a cave in Manresa. He lived in extreme deprivation, fasting, in utter simplicity. He even let his hair and nails grow out.
We might say he went a little too mad. But that wasn’t the case. He was experimenting with a sort of radical asceticism, trying to rid himself of the attachments that were keeping him from doing God’s will. Now was his an extreme form? Sure. Many of the saints go through extreme periods of asceticism, in imitation of Jesus who spent forty days and forty nights in the desert. Does Ignatius live that way for the rest of his life? No, and he wouldn’t counsel his followers to do so. But it was an important moment in his own spiritual development.
None of us are meant to live Lent all year round, but it’s good for us to deny ourselves for a period, fasting, almsgiving, ridding ourselves of detachments and diversions. It’s important for us to do this for a time, just like Ignatius at Manresa.
Another saint to consider during Lent is St. Robert Bellarmine, one of Ignatius’s great sons in the Jesuit order. Bellarmine was a gifted theologian and respected cardinal, and very active in the world. Yet despite his activity, every Lent, every year, he completed the thirty-day Ignatian retreat. Some people complete the retreat once in the lifetime, but Bellarmine did it every single year.
There’s something wise in adopting a rigorous, but healthy period of asceticism during Lent, as these two particular saints demonstrate.
“None of us are meant to live Lent all year round, but it’s good for us to deny ourselves for a period.”
– Father Robert Barron