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Getting Lost in Lent
By Judi M. Bailey
Struggling through Lent, this woman allowed herself to get lost—and found—in the season.

Q U I C K S C A N

Meaning of Lent
Lost in Lent
Found in Lent
Rolling the Rock Away


PHOTO FROM DESIGN PICS/STEVEN RANISZEWSKI

IT WAS DURING LENT one year that I realized how much I was floundering. Well, to tell the truth, I was dead lost in a wilderness of spiritual doubt and questioning what life was all about. I couldn’t see out of the burlap bag I was trapped in and the drawstrings seemed to be pulling tighter and tighter.

But wait...isn’t this what the Lenten season is all about? The courageous introspection to learn where we have veered away from God, then the humility to rest in the heart of Easter? The rising from our old selves into new God-directed ones?

So sometimes it’s good to be lost.

But Lent is not all about us and neither is the pain. It relates more to the “sharing of the suffering of Christ.” As my friend Kevin puts it, “Offering up discomfort creates a connection between you and Christ.” This holy time is about Jesus’ agony on the cross and the lessons he taught, like trust in our Father and belief in our eternal salvation.

Before letting go of the nasty habits of thought and action, we hold tight to the suffering they bring us. We cling to our sins, holding them against us like a shield. We cling to our satanic attributes— like greed, selfishness, jealousy, dishonesty—while rationalizing how minor they are. We think the pain stems from the letting go, whereas it breeds in the holding on.

As I regard my own holding on, I have to consider: Where does this leave my relationship with Christ?

Meaning of Lent

We Catholics typically observe Lent as a time of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. The year of my “Black Lent” saw me struggling with prayer, indulging rather than fasting and giving to no one but myself. My wandering in this desert of self-centeredness put me in mind of another wilderness.

“I love the season of Lent,” my neighbor Sherry says. “It is a time to recall both the Old Testament roots of our religion—namely, the Israelites wandering for 40 years in the wilderness—and Jesus’ 40 days in the desert. Lent is a season of sparseness, of being aware of the desert in our souls when we walk without Christ. Giving up something for Lent is a physical practice because of the notion that physical discipline and mental discipline parallel spiritual discipline. Lent gets a bad rap as simply a time to give up chocolate, but it is a rich time of self-assessment if we allow it.

“We are also supposed to engage in positive acts,” Sherry continues, “like almsgiving, donating time and volunteering. The idea is to do all three: prayer as spiritual discipline, fasting for mental discipline and service as a physical discipline.”

Lent is one of the earliest practices of our faith. In the early days of Christianity, Lent was a time of preparation for those who would be baptized at the Easter vigil, which was then a common practice. At that time the holy season lasted three or four days, but by the fourth century, Christians were observing Lent for 40 days. Some link this to the Council of Nicaea which discussed a 40-day season of fasting in 325 A.D.

Many theologies equated Lent with the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness to pray, fast and prepare for his future life. These involved his days of temptation where he had to make a choice between doing the will of his Father or living by a set of values quite contrary to God’s. Would Jesus serve the will of God? Or would he wield his power to have others serve him?

And how exactly would I handle this dilemma? It’s easy to plan to follow the will of God. It’s quite another thing to take the action—and make the sacrifices— to complete the commitment. It’s just as easy (some say easier) to take the comfortable way out while bristling with a “what’s the point?” attitude.

But not Jesus; he didn’t want any part of that. It was during this solemn retreat that Jesus learned exactly who he was and what God required him to do. And no matter how difficult the mission ahead, he would do God’s will. Jesus left that desolate wilderness north of the Dead Sea to enter into his ministry.

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Lost in Lent

So which direction would I choose? I, too, wrestled with the urgings of my ego, with the selfish indulgences I might be able to grab.

All I knew was that I was frustrated with life. I picked up my Bible, then soon flung it across the carpet. I prayed for spiritual guidance, distracted by what the day’s events might bring. I attended Mass a little more often while preoccupied with my recent rejections and thwarted ambitions.

The best I was able to do was shriek at God because my life wasn’t better. This meant at least God and I were on speaking terms.

Another image I frequented was how closely, in a particular way, my experience paralleled the Israelites who wandered for 40 years in the hot, parched desert, trapped in their distrust in God, living in huts and tents, uncertain and afraid. The journey through my wilderness was hot and dry as well, as if the heat radiated up in fiery plumes, blasting into my face and keeping me from seeing the truth, as if the little dirt devils in the sand were parts of Satan whirling around my feet to trip me up and grab hold of my soul.

I found it odd when I learned that the Israelites camping in the desert were within close range of the Promised Land. Then again, how often are we at the same point—so close to touching the Spirit yet too tired to press on?

As the holy season crept on, my reflections began to take a more functional form. I began to examine with more honesty where I was in my faith and where I wanted to be. It wasn’t pretty. I learned that giving up sugar and TV were fine sacrifices, but giving up my defiance and pretense would get me a lot further. So I trudged on, finally understanding why a number of biblical scholars claimed that the number 40 also means a long period of time of need, of testing, of preparation.

Found in Lent

“So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.” This very verse, from the Second Letter to the Corinthians (5:17), led the way out of my wilderness of winter and toward the springtime of my transformed life: to let the old self lapse and the new one ring in.

The word Lent comes from the Middle English word for “spring.” Spring, of course, brings thoughts of renewal, rebirth and radiance. Like the season’s forsythias, it is the era in which our lives engage in the flowering of our souls.

My quest now was how to let my old self lapse and leave room for the new self to emerge. I asked a couple of people how they made this transformation. Here’s what a friend of mine does.

“My take on Lent is that it’s definitely a time for reflection and prayer and fasting,” Heidi says. “About four or five years ago, to get myself into the habit of reading the Bible daily, I decided to give up time to God every day to read his Word. I read passages and wrote reflections on what I was reading and what it meant to me. As a kid and teen, I gave up things like candy or soda or specifically chocolate, which I love. But as I’ve gotten older, I’d been craving a better understanding of the Bible and how it fits into my life.”

Some people skate through Lent with few snags. At least usually. But for those who stumble into the Lenten season with bruised souls, here’s a sampling of steps I take, plus a few suggestions from Catholics I know:

• Accept that pain, self-made no less, is often the touchstone to spiritual progress.

• Assess my “foxes” from the Song of Songs 2:15, which reads, “Catch us the foxes, the little foxes that damage the vineyards.” What were mine? What were the distractions, the obsessions and defects of my character that kept me from experiencing God?

• To “set my house in order...” Give up each “fox” and turn it over to God. This included my escape into my own thoughts, self-pity, greed and envy.

• Rededicate myself to the Church and to continuous spiritual development, daily.

• Remember to thank God for the things that he has granted and for the people who have offered a helping hand. And for the angels!

• Adopt the Franciscan philosophy of “detachment,” which basically says that the less you are preoccupied with outside affairs, the more room there is for God, as well as for yourself and others.

• Wake up and become aware of God’s continual presence especially when things are in turmoil.

• Recognize the need to let go of pretense and embrace the long walk toward humility in Christ.

Rolling the Rock Away

Now, rather than wandering aimlessly through a perplexing wilderness, I give thanks to God for enabling the rock to be rolled from Jesus’ tomb— as well as from my own.

Whether you celebrate Lent by giving up gossip or practicing more prayer, remember to fine-tune your awareness of the omnipresence of God who permeates all that you do.


Judi M. Bailey, a writer from Lakewood, Ohio, has published over 100 articles in Christian and secular magazines.

 


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