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
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
“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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
• 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,
• 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
• 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