Suffering can be a lonely journey. Nothing can isolate us more than illness or disability. Even surrounded by well-intentioned caregivers, the patient or anyone being “treated” can feel more like an object poked and prodded. Worst of all is the sense of confinement, whether due to being bound to a bed, a chair or a tube, or just waiting for an authority to tell you that you can be “discharged” or, even less personally, to sign a “release.”

The discipline of Lent, historically, might have felt somewhat like a hospital for Catholics of yesteryear during the Lenten journey of 40 days, beginning with Ash Wednesday, a day of fast and abstinence. Just to review the rules, abstinence means no meat in any form and, when prescribed, must be observed by all Catholics, 14 and over. On fast days, Catholics between the ages of 21 and up to the completion of their 59th year may eat only one full meal a day. Two other light, meatless meals may be taken.

Prior to Feb. 26, 1966 (Ash Wednesday that year) when St. Pope Paul VI’s Apostolic Constitution, “Paenitemini” (“Let us Repent”), went into effect, every day of Lent — except for Sundays — was a fast day. All Fridays throughout the year were days of abstinence, including in Lent, of course. Under the relaxed rules, we still observe abstinence on all Fridays of Lent. Fasting is only required on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

Many people continue to observe these and other penitential practices, as Pope Paul recommended, especially during Lent, in order to focus on the centrality of God in our lives by accompanying Jesus as the Way, Truth and Life, our spiritual food and sustenance. The temptations of Christ himself recall the original seduction of our first parents, with the usual Satanic deceptions: that power, wealth and sensual delights will fill our soul’s longing for God, allowing us, effectively, to become “gods.” We see how badly this has worked out for the human race when our egos become our masters. Not only do we become slaves to our own passions but we end up very lonely in a world, battling other little despots, everyone out for themselves and their own turf.

The discipline of Lent is designed to free us and purify us of those self-serving influences, but note that they can also weaken us and make us more vulnerable to temptation. It was after Jesus fasted and prayed for 40 days that the Devil’s temptations arrived in full force. Satan is a coward, who hides behind our perceived needs, using our weaknesses to seduce us from God and lure us into his pride. In this sense, the practice of doing penitential acts, giving things up and even following the traditional counsels to fast, pray and give alms can lock us into a lonely pattern of self-congratulative scorekeeping, as we check off our brownie points, virtue-signaling our accomplishments to ourselves or anyone who will notice.

This, of course, fills us with pride — Satan’s curse — and further isolates us from our companions. Now I do not want to suggest for one minute that we avoid or even temper the intensity of our sacrifices — both our corporal and spiritual exercises. This is our holy “spring training,” and we need it very much to get us into better shape. But we don’t have to go it alone.

An essential component of any athlete’s training is to enable him or her to become a stronger member of the team. Athletes do not train just for themselves — to excel personally — though that is certainly commendable and even helpful for the team’s success. We, as members of Christ’s Mystical Body, each have a role to play in this “Communion of Saints” on earth that we are each a part of. In order to participate more fully in the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus — the goal of our Lenten pilgrimage — we walk the walk together and will be so much better for it. Toward that end, might I suggest that we accept a personal invitation from the original and model Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph to walk with them throughout these 40 days.

The Holy Family never leaves us. St. Joseph is forever father and protector of his family, the Patron of the Universal Church. Perhaps not by chance, the Solemnity of St. Joseph, husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary, comes up on March 19, always during Lent, this year falling on a Thursday, reminding us that he is a key figure in our lives as we struggle with sin and temptation. Consider the challenges he faced, learning of Mary’s pregnancy shortly after the Annunciation, knowing he was not the natural father of the child Mary was bearing. And having to trust in only the words of an angel in a dream and in his confidence in Mary’s love and virtue.

Not by chance, I think, we also honor Mary during Lent on the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord, March 25, this year on a Tuesday. No, it cannot be just by chance — unless chance is the logic of God — that these two parental figures are honored right in the middle of our Lenten journey to remind us that they are with us. We are not alone in the desert any more than Jesus was, led by the Holy Spirit or, in Mark’s words, driven or “pushed” into this trial, just before his public ministry.

If we as disciples of Jesus, are to learn how to become his ambassadors in the world, commissioned as evangelizers to announce the “Good News” of the Gospel, which is Christ among us, Jesus in our midst, we need to shape up for it. We need this Lent. But we also need one another, for a pilgrimage is no pilgrimage unless we are accompanied by fellow travelers. Otherwise it is too confining and constricting, more like a hospital stay, or even a prison term. Finding friends, starting with our families, will greatly increase the spiritual rewards of Lent.

Jesus himself never sent his disciples out alone. No sooner did he end his 40-day fast, then he began to choose the Twelve who would become his Apostles. So, too, we can be sure, he is calling each of us by name to accompany him on our journey during Lent with him to Calvary. And when we walk with Jesus we walk with his family, Mary and Joseph, and his extended family, of which each of us is a member.

So don’t be a lone ranger during Lent, or you may just end up feeling sorry for yourself, even if you do lose a few pounds. Walk the walk with Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Let’s accompany one another and share our stories of faith. Even if the going gets rough, our Easter will be so much more rewarding and our witness to the awesome power of the Resurrection so much stronger and effective. We will emerge together from the trenches, sustained and renewed as families in mission.