Seeing Lent as a time of preparation for the celebration of Easter makes sense. It’s pretty straightforward – we figure out something pentitential to do during Lent, and we do that for 6 weeks and 3 days, and then it’s Easter and we get back what we gave up as we celebrate the Risen Lord.
When my parish announced a 3-day church mission for the week before Ash Wednesday as a way to prepare ourselves for Lent, I wasn’t at all sure that made sense. Nevertheless, the priest who was preaching this mission is a gifted speaker and homilist who brings both humor and holiness to everything he touches, so I decided to participate.
Mind you, I hadn’t ventured out of the house in the evening (except for family gatherings) in about two years, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. I had become comfortably accustomed to my own company in the long evening hours, supplemented by whatever I could find on television or one or another streaming service. I’d tuck myself into my chair with my knitting, my self, and my remote control, surrounded by a dog and three cats, and the hours would pass.
By the time the mission was announced, I had to admit to myself that I was experiencing a bit of a spiritual funk. Sure, I was still attending daily Mass, and praying the Rosary, and praying daily for all of the people and intentions on my prayer list. But I didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere. Often as not, I would start on my prayer list after I got into bed, and fall asleep several times before I finally stayed awake long enough to finish it. There seemed to be a lot of rote without nearly enough right.
In conversations with a couple of friends, we had commiserated about the lack of community we were all experiencing as a result of the pandemic and its lockdowns and restrictions. We understood the need for all that, but we mourned what we had lost because of it.
I resolved to attend all three nights of the mission. In the weeks leading up to it, some other things began to happen. I began working with the RCIA team at my parish, and as part of that, I participated in some of the interviews of candidates and catechumens in their preparation for receiving sacraments at the Easter Vigil. I also participated in some preparations to reintroduce small faith-sharing groups in our parish.
And while these things were going on, I was puzzling over just what I needed to do to jumpstart my spiritual life. Spiritual me was dragging her spiritual feet, and I was increasingly weighed down at the thought of continuing as a faithful Catholic despite the lack of emotion or any sense of spiritual progress, much less accomplishment.
All I could do, it seemed – and all I kept doing, whether I felt it deep in my soul or not – was keep repeating, “Jesus, I love You. I trust You. Please show me what You want from me.”
The first thing that happened was an encounter with a young man in the RCIA group who had been turned against the Church during his college years. His feelings were strongly negative; he had left his Catholic upbringing far behind. As I listened to his story, I felt a very strong call to pray for him, and I did so silently even as I continued listening. Afterward, I added his name to my prayer list, and received another strong message: this man’s need to be prayed for deserved much more than the half-asleep rote mumblings my evening prayers had come to be lately.
Was I going to put him on my list and ignore that message? Absolutely not. But I wasn’t quite sure what direction to take. That’s when the next thing happened: the church mission. The first night of the mission, as Fr. Matthew talked about Jesus’ instructions for “When you fast,” something broke loose inside me. I began to see that I was not just in a rut spiritually, but that I was allowing myself to stay there by my unwillingness to do the hard things. I seemed to want to rest on the notion that I was a good Catholic doing the right things. When I heard Fr. Matthew’s message about fasting, I realized that I had been actively resisting the idea of denying myself, and that if I was going to get anywhere, I would need to end that resistance. I was intrigued by his comment that when we break the bondage of our human appetites, we free up our spirit for God.
Then came the second night, and a discussion of almsgiving. Again, the message challenged my notion that my donations to the parish and to one or another charitable cause was a pretty good thing. Again, the idea that our bondage to material things gets in the way of growth in our spiritual life captured my interest.
And then the third night, dealing with Jesus’ instructions for when we pray, really started to open things up. I realized that I kept asking Him to tell me what to do, but I wasn’t listening for His answer. Of course I needed to continue asking for His guidance and inspiration, but more than that, I then needed to be a willing participant in the solutions He offered me.
These messages were so clear, finally, that I saw at last a path without that awful rut in the middle of it. This was not so much a light at the end of a tunnel as it was a clear beam of light across still water, so clear and bright that I could walk on it all the way to its source.
I began to look for and identify ways I could change my routines to create new and better opportunities for my spiritual life to flourish, understanding that it was not going to just happen. That meant that instead of a solid block of hours in front of the television, I could sit and bring my prayer list to God while I was wide awake and fully invested in the petitions I was bringing to Him. It meant looking for ways to add prayer times to my day; thinking about that led me back to the idea of having my phone set to chime every hour of the day with a scripture verse and prayer reminder.
Even more, I began to identify the source of a certain unrest I had been feeling about the state of my soul. As I’ve mentioned in other writings, I spent many years – from age 20 to age 65 – outside the embrace of the Catholic Church. And during those years, I broke absolutely every single commandment at least once, some of them many, many times. I just brazenly tore through life, doing what I wanted and caring little for the example I set or the damage I caused. And this was so even during the years that I attended other churches.
I like to say, when I tell the story of my return to faith, that Jesus came looking for me like the one lost sheep that I was, and He chased me until I caught Him. When I came back, it was with a faith stronger than it had ever been in my younger life.
Shortly after I began attending Mass again, I sat down with the parish priest to find out what I needed to be in a state of grace. I didn’t know at first that this was what we were doing. I thought we were just getting acquainted. But this priest began to gently ask me to tell him about my life, and before I knew it, it was all spilling out of me, along with all the tears I hadn’t shed when I did those things. So I told, and I wept, and sometimes I sobbed, and he sat there and listened.
Finally, he said, “I don’t think you realize it, but you’ve just made a good confession.” He led me through an act of contrition, then gave me a general absolution and explained that this forgave all of my sins, even those I didn’t remember committing. And I walked out of that priest’s office about 3 feet off the ground.
The thing is, though, over the years I still think about those sins every once in a while. And there is always a nagging sense that I missed something, that I am not quite done with those sins. I know that they are completely forgiven and absolved; and I know that Jesus died on the Cross in atonement for the sins of mankind. But what I finally realized, as I reflected on the changes that were taking place in me over the past few days, was that I hadn’t really wrapped my mind around the concepts of penance and atonement.
In the traditional Act of Contrition, we pledge to do penance for our sins and to amend our lives – that is, avoid both sin and what would lead us to sin. And it occurred to me as I mulled all of this over that a part of the grace we receive from the Sacrament of Reconciliation is an ongoing desire and need to atone for our sins.
I then questioned my own thoughts. If I seek to atone for my sins, to do further penance for them, is that somehow a repudiation of the saving grace that Jesus gained for us on the Cross? My answer to that question is “No.” I think that ongoing penance is both an acknowledgment of our sinful nature and a participation in the redemptive acts of Jesus. What I was feeling, in my sense of incompleteness, was a desire to show Jesus my willingness to participate fully in grace. Acts of penance and atonement, arising from an understanding of my sinful nature as a human being and done in a spirit of love for Jesus, are simply a way of responding to the great love He showed me. Such actions are a small and very human way of telling Him that I love Him and that His love for me matters to me.
All of this brought me, finally, to a deeper and better understanding of the three pillars of Lent – fasting, almsgiving, and prayer – and a deeper appreciation for putting aside self-indulgence in favor of penitential behavior. In other words, by separating myself from my love of material comforts, material wealth, and mindless entertainments in favor of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer, I will be more attuned to what Jesus wants to do in my life, and what He wants me to do with my life.
Now, I am thinking about all of this as an active participant in my own spiritual life, rather than a passive bystander, waiting for God to send me a sign of what He’s looking for. If I’m honest with myself – and with Him – I already know.
And that’s why the idea of preparing for Lent makes so much sense. Now I can prayerfully plan for the kinds of penance, generosity, and prayer that will set me firmly on the path to not only the Cross, but also the empty tomb…and finally, to an encounter on the road to Emmaus.
Yes. I can live with that.