Lent is probably not one of the more beloved liturgical seasons, but I have a soft spot for it. It always seems to come at a time of year when I'd like permission to be a little bit gloomy, a little bit introspective, a little more open about how far away God can feel. There’s something affirming about all those minor-key hymns and the somber altar decor, something validating about the ashes, the days of fasting and abstaining, the way we give things up or take them on: “Yes,” everything seems to say, “we’re all in the wilderness, we're all a bit lost.”
So even though Ash Wednesday came early this year— and on Valentine’s Day, as if to ferret out everyone’s true feelings on fasting— I was excited for it. About a week before, I was having supper at the monastery after evening praise, and I asked the women at my table if they had any suggestions for some Lenten practices. Immediately, they flooded me with advice about spiritual books to read, and meditation practices to take up, and creative ways to develop virtues I’ve mostly ignored.
“Wow,” I said. “This is pretty far from, you know, ‘give up chocolate.’”
No, no, they told me. That’s kid stuff. Lent isn’t about your willpower, or how tough you are. It’s about giving God the space to change you— not for a month and a half, but for good.
Can’t argue with that wisdom. So I added a number of their books to my reading list—The Rule of Benedict says to allocate extra time for reading during Lent, anyway— and started thinking about how I wanted to be changed. I wish that I could say, “I’m giving up the compulsion to let everyone know when I’m doing something nice,” or, “I’m giving up the habit of replaying disagreements in my mind until I’ve perfected my argument.” But those seem like loftier projects that will take a lot longer to work through. Last year I “gave up” making judgmental comments, but I slipped up so frequently that I got discouraged, quit, and spent the final four weeks of Lent with no extra practices besides sulking.
This year, I decided to start small: I want my life to be simpler. I want to treat this fragile planet more gently. It’s a little ironic that, in an effort to have a more mature, post-Vatican-II faith life, I ended up going back to some of the oldest and most traditional Lenten disciplines: No meat. Less dairy. Going through my closet and giving the extra clothes (why did I own three green cardigans?) to those in need. Will this bring me closer to those who are suffering? Will it bring me closer to the person I want to become? The big question: will it bring me closer to God? I’m not sure that disciplines really do that, but maybe they can prepare the way.
If I’m being honest, I got one of the best lessons in closeness to God that I could have received from my little goddaughters this Ash Wednesday. We’ve just started going through the rigamarole of trying to get them baptized in the Catholic Church: a process that is aggressively testing my patience, and making me do some not-especially-comfortable soul-searching about what “being Catholic” means to me. One thing led to another and I ended up taking the girls to get ashes at the neighborhood parish’s evening service. It was my third time getting ashes that day. For the children, it wasn’t just their first time getting ashes, but their first time going to a parish for Mass at all.
We got to the old, ornate, pre-Vatican-II-style church way too early, before anyone else was there. This was a bad call on my part. Also a bad call: not doing more to prepare them in the niceties of church etiquette. I don’t know what I was thinking— these girls are such irrepressible spitfires, I should have known that being in a new situation wouldn’t intimidate them into being quiet or docile. But it really caught me off-guard when the incredibly sweet and sensitive, and also utterly untamed, ten-year-old bolted up the center aisle, onto the altar, over the steps of the high altar, within seconds of entering the sanctuary. I watched, transfixed, as she stroked the tabernacle with her sticky hands. Her eight year old sister perched in the priest’s velvet chair. The eleven year old sister started thumbing through the gold-plated lectionary. They didn't seem to hear me when I told them to stop and to get down. I didn’t know what to do. The instinct, of course, was to glower at them and sternly march them out, to harangue them and make them understand how bad they were being, how unacceptable this was.
But I reigned myself in a little bit, because that shouldn’t be a child’s earliest impression of church, of religion, of the divine. I did steer them off the altar, out of the sanctuary, and tried to corral their playing and their curiosity into the vestibule. And I did try to impart just a little discipline, “nothing harsh or burdensome,” and some kind of explanation of norms. I know that was the right thing to do. They have to understand that church is not a playground. They continued to be wild things throughout most of the Mass, but at least they were wild things in the pews.
Still, I keep thinking of that beautiful, fearless child reaching out for the tabernacle as naturally as she climbs into my lap. I keep thinking of the wilderness we are all wandering through, how the heart's magnet seems to mysteriously pull us the right direction. I keep thinking of the lines from Psalm 73: “I was always in Your presence; You were holding me by the hand.” I hope these children sense God’s unconditional love. I hope that, despite all the complexities that arise in life, they know that God’s love is, at its base, a simple thing. I hope that they always feel safe with God, that throughout their lives, they’ll be able to relax in Her arms.
And I hope that someday I'll feel all that, too.
I’ll leave you with this excerpt from a poem called “Ash Wednesday,” by T.S. Eliot.
“Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are …
And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain …
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.”
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A blog by Jacqueline Small
What happens when a woman in her mid-twenties begins to work, pray, and share life with a community of Benedictine sisters? What questions arise and what wisdom emerges? This blog will offer peeks into one young seeker’s experiences. Jacqueline is a staff member of Monasteries of the Heart and an oblate of Mount Saint Benedict Monastery. She holds a Bachelors degree in Sociology from Swarthmore College, a Masters in Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Masters in Social Work from Rutgers University.
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