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You readers who have been with me for a while may have noticed that I have not mentioned my annual “Lenten Lesson.”  Usually, I get an inkling of it near the beginning of Lent.  A certain theme emerges.  A certain issue is raised.  A certain goal is set.

That didn’t happen this year.  Oh, I started out with my typical plans: give up sweets, pray and go to Mass more often, attend the Friday evening Stations of the Cross.

But God had other plans, nearly all of which centered around other people.  People in need.  People making demands.  Whenever I really wanted to just go to church or stay home and work on my spiritual life, I found myself going to somebody else or doing things for somebody else.  Whenever I asked God what my Lenten Lesson was supposed to be, He would send me a person instead.

I have to say, I found it very frustrating at times, but whenever I began to feel frustrated or tempted to complain, there was always a voice in my head saying, “Be there for them.  Love them and put them before yourself and your own desires.  Be Christ for them.  Do it for love of them.  Love them for love of God.”  And so, I managed to keep my mouth shut and my face free of frowns (although taming my mind wasn’t always successful).

Slowly, gradually, those words sank into me and took root, and acting as they prompted me to act started to become habitual.  And during Holy Week, I finally realized it: that was my Lenten Lesson!  To grow in charity, that divine virtue of loving God and loving other people for love of God.  When I finally recognized what the lesson was, and realized how much I had been learning through experience, I felt much the wiser, and extremely grateful!

I see now the wisdom in not cluing me into the lesson ahead of time.  Had I known it ahead of time, I may have acted charitably out of a kind of compulsion other than pure, simple love.  I also may have become prideful and focused on myself, instead of focusing on God and others.  By not setting forth the lesson ahead of time, God effectively took me out of it and made it more genuine and more truly other-centered.

God truly works in wondrous and mysterious ways, with such great wisdom!


Just an update in case you’ve wondered what’s happened to me!

My dear father has been in the hospital a while–please keep the prayers coming for him.  They are such a source of comfort to him, and to my family and me!  Right now, we are waiting to hear the results of some biopsies they took from his stomach.  Hopefully it is not cancer.  And hopefully, he will be able to move from the hospital into a rehab place so he can get his strength and mobility back.

I went to the doctor today with a severe skin rash and lots of aches and pains and found out that I’ve got shingles.  Ugh.  I feel like I’ve been hit by a bus.  I did get medication, and hopefully it was caught early enough to avoid any long-term problems.  I was really surprised to get shingles–generally, it’s associated with older people.  But I’ve been through lots of stress lately, and visiting the hospital to see my dad, so I guess my immune system was weakened.  At least it wasn’t something more serious.  I’ve been having pains in my chest, and was afraid it was something to do with my heart.  So thank God it wasn’t.

The Lenten Lesson is being hammered in hard this year, in ways I didn’t expect.  It was all about keeping things in perspective.  And illness–whether of a loved one or your own–is a really good teacher.  Lots to offer up.  Lots to test my faith and trust in God.

I hope everybody is having blessed Lent!

As usual, I’ve been assigned a Lenten Lesson.  God always gives me a strong nudge to work on something particular each Lent.  This year, it’s all about keeping things in proper perspective.  This means a couple of things:

1.  Not giving anything priority over God, my relationship with Him, and my journey to Him. For instance, saying morning and evening prayers right after waking in the morning and right after getting home from work in the evening–and not letting anything distract me from it.

2.  Not worrying, getting upset, or being impatient about things that don’t matter. For instance, that driver who cuts me off or drives too slowly when I’m on my way to work.  As long as they don’t do anything to maim or kill me or somebody else, it really doesn’t matter.  It’s not worth swearing like a sailor and arriving at the office in a really foul mood.

It’s about realizing and re-affirming how important God is, and how good life is.  It’s about being vigilant to the devil and the ways in which he slimily slithers in between me and those realizations.  As our deacon reminded us today: If the devil was audacious enough to tempt the Son of God, then he’s certainly audacious enough to tempt you and me.  And it often starts with just a little shift, a little nudge.

Like all Lenten Lessons, this one should be very instructive and very worthwhile.  I really need this.

I hope and pray that everybody has a blessed and fruitful Lent!

good-shepherd-glassMy Lenten Lesson for this year was to be sheepish:

Not in any bad sense.  Just trusting more in our Lord’s mercy.  Putting myself in His arms.  Not chasing after my own designs so much.  Being more genuine.  Being more humble.  Seeing in greater clarity my weak humanity and all its struggling and suffering… and not freaking out about it as if I’m supposed to be some other creature.  Just today alone, I’ve come to realize that sometimes I think I’m supposed to be God–I’m supposed to be the infinitely strong, mighty, wise, and merciful one–to the point where I don’t feel like I need to turn to God or entrust myself to Him.

I guess there’s something in all of us that craves to be in control at times.  I know I can be a control freak now and then.  But that’s not who we are, that’s not how we’re made. We don’t thrive that way, nor do we learn anything.  We need God to be God, and us to be ourselves.  We need to be the rescued wayward sheep at least sometimes.

I had a feeling that it was going to be challenging, and it has been.  But I feel it has been a success!  It’s hard to go through and enumerate all the steps in the process, but I do feel I’ve learned and changed.  I have put myself more in God’s hands.

It has taken some discipline, but in disciplining myself, I feel I have been much kinder and gentler to myself.  If that makes sense.  To put it another way, I’ve always been my own harshest and most unreasonable critic.  When I am able to just put myself in God’s hands and look to Him for my needs and for solutions, I always find that He is infinitely gentler and more forgiving than I am to myself.  The same is true with other people, even.  When I look outward and when I trust God and others, I find so much more love than when I look inside myself.

This Lenten Lesson was partly about learning to see myself more the way God does, and the way other people do.  And treating myself more the way I would treat others.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about laxity.  This isn’t about letting myself slide or take license.  It’s just about compassion… happiness… not agonizing over things to the point where it’s really hard for me to appreciate how good life is, how good God and other people are to me.

Most of all, I feel like I have received a great deal of healing this Lent.  You know, the last several years have been so hard and brought about so much change… not all of it good.  Even though I can’t help it that my fiance died, even though it was so completely out of my hands and my control… being single and alone again has been such a huge, painful blow to me, to my confidence and to my sense of my own identity and value.  It has made me self-reliant in a positive way, but it has also turned me inward on myself to a very unhealthy and unhappy degree.

I think it has left some chinks through which some remnant of my old feminist and atheist attitudes have seeped back into me.  There’s been this nasty little voice saying,  “You don’t need a man.  You don’t need anybody.  And you definitely don’t need some god in heaven.  All the power you need is in you.  You are in control.”  And it ignited in me some awful need to overcompensate for my loss and cope with all the change.

I guess some part of me still found that more attractive than accepting the truth of the matter, that sometimes I need somebody greater and more powerful than me to help, to provide, to heal, to comfort, to control, and to fight for me.  I need to be carried sometimes.  And that’s not a put-down of myself, nor is it self-pity.  It’s simply the truth.  And right now, that Somebody is God.  My parents and other relatives and friends and Church communities help a lot too!  But mostly, it’s just me and God.

Not me or God (as that nasty little voice would have me believe).  But me and God.  He has blessed me with many abilities and strengths… and weaknesses.  Most of all, He has blessed me with Himself!  When I accept and receive Him, I also accept and receive my self.  He gives me my self in all authenticity and truth.  He looks upon it with love, and that makes me more capable of doing the same.

I still have lots of questions about how to be myself and exactly who that is right now.  About how I am different than in the past and how I’m still the same.  I have things to learn about how to interact with people too.  Lots to learn and explore.  There is nobody who can give me more answers than God can.  Nobody knows me or my questions better than He does.  I don’t even know how to ask them–but He knows what they are.

So I need to keep on building upon my relationship and partnership with God.  And with other people too–because they will always be part of my life and who I am.  I know God uses us to help each other.  But honestly, after almost 4 years, nearly everybody around me either 1) doesn’t realize all I’ve been through, or 2) assumes that what happened then no longer affects me, that I am “over it,” not to put it too bluntly.  I don’t hold that against anybody.  There’s no way they could still be as aware of my difficulties as I am.  But that’s why I say it’s mostly just me and God for now.

The Lenten Lesson has helped me see how close He is to me, all the time.  And that He is there for me.  I don’t need to try to shoulder anything alone.  I don’t have to accept the little voices that lie to me and try to build walls between me and Him.  I now recognize them for what they are.  And I no longer want anything to do with them.  I just want Him.  And I just want to be whole and live well, with as much happiness as possible.

Not happiness as defined by the world, but happiness as defined by my soul’s relationship with God.  Whether it is the relationship between Father and daughter, Shepherd and sheep, King and subject, Teacher and student, Master and handmaid, Creator and creature, there is no shame in it.  God’s love and devotion gives it worth.  And that is where happiness is born.  That is where our selves are most true: in His love.

(Image is a detail from a photo by Flickr user Lawrence OP)

My Catholic ladies’ book club is reading Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation this month.  I have mixed feelings about the book, but it does include some good thoughts, including some that I have found very helpful with the Lenten Lesson.  One of the best I’ve come across so far is this:

Be content that you are not yet a saint, even though you realize that the only thing worth living for is sanctity.  Then you will be satisfied to let God lead you to sanctity by paths that you cannot understand.  You will travel in darkness in which you will no longer be concerned with yourself and no longer compare yourself with other men.

That encapsulates the Lenten Lesson quite well.  Namely:

1.  To acknowledge that I am on a journey and in a process; I’m not there yet

2.  To allow God to lead me, with more trust and less resistance

3.  To not be so concerned with myself; to be less self-centered

4.  To not always compare myself with other people; to be authentically myself, the person God created me to be

To a large extent, I feel like I need to find myself, and to be myself.  And in order to do that, I need to be closer to God.  That’s another thing Merton talks about in this book: how we come to know ourselves through knowing God and shedding lots of false conceptions of ourselves.  I think that is very true for me.

Over the past several years, God has deconstructed and reconstructed me.  And rather than trust Him, I have also attempted to reconstruct myself as I see fit.  It has only distracted and confused me.  It has come to nothing.  Right now, I need to get to know how God has reconstructed me.  I need to explore and grow into the new structure He has given me.  I need to fulfill His vision of me.  I need to be a peace with myself, to feel more comfortable with myself.

I have been feeling rather in the dark.  At times I feel like the only thing I can do is put one foot in front of the other… inhale and exhale… and keep praying, even if I don’t feel like it.

Also today, a friend and reader “coincidentally” sent me an excerpt from Thomas Keating’s Intimacy with God:

At this point, the initial graces that were given to our rational faculties and emotions are withdrawn–a classic experience in the spiritual journey known as “the dark night of sense.” Our enthusiasm for various devotional practices and activities disappears because God no longer gives the grace that works through the levels of reason and emotion. God, too, seems to withdraw, to our great distress or consternation. Instead of being present during our time of prayer, God seems not to show up anymore; it feels as if God could not care less. This is especially painful if the former relationship was very satisfying, exciting, or consoling. The thought rises, “God has abandoned me!” When the dryness is extreme, Lectio Divina is like reading the telephone book and spiritual exercises are just a bore. We are irritable and discouraged because the light of our life has gone out. It took so many years to find God and now God has gone away. There is a constant temptation to think we have done something wrong, but we can’t figure out what it was. Our tendency is to project onto God the way we would feel in a similar deteriorating relationship with another human being, namely, hopeless. This judgment is most unfair to God. At this point a lot of people throw in the towel and decide, “The spiritual journey is not for me.”

As the transition to the next layer takes place, there may be a discouraging sense that all is ending, and in a sense, it is the end of our world: But our world is not the world; it is just one of them. God cannot possibly go away. It is true, our relationship with God, if we deliberately walk away, can be injured for a while, but God does not really leave us. If God did, we would just disappear or turn into a grease spot, since God is the very life of our being.

Creation is ongoing. What God has done in this situation is simply to “go downstairs” to a more intimate place on the spiral staircase, where he is waiting for us to join him at a new level of maturity and trust. If we are very quiet in the night of sense, St. John of the Cross writes, we may notice a delicate sense of peace and may even begin to enjoy the more substantial food of pure faith. As we let go of the level on which we formerly found satisfaction, we move to a deeper level of faith, which is far more reliable and much more strengthening for the journey.

I do feel like I need to quieten myself and delve deeper.  I said recently that I feel like I am at some kind of turning point, some kind of break-though point.  I feel a great deal of tension, a small touch of trepidation, and also excitement–the latter being a small testament that I do know that God wills wonderful things for me and for all of us if we just follow His lead.  I know the rewards of taking the plunge into deeper spiritual waters.  I know that “delicate sense of peace” that blooms from spiritual perseverance.

But there is still so much mystery and uncertainty.  No two lessons are exactly the same.  Knowing the good results doesn’t necessarily calm one’s nerves.  It still demands submission and a willingness to just… let… go.  It still demands a leap of faith, with the understanding that God might allow us to plummet and tumble and madly flap our arms for a while before He catches us.  I know that feeling too!

I still feel like I’m clinging to the cliff, peering into the chasm.  But I feel more and more like letting go.  If it will bring me nearer to God, and make me more myself, then I just have to do it.

It’s been a wonderful day.  I got up early and went to morning Mass at my parish.  Our priest gave a wonderful homily about how Lent is our opportunity to honestly appraise our lives and our sinfulness and to pledge ourselves anew to growing closer to God and surrendering to deep conversion.  He told us that the only reason we should receive ashes upon our heads was that we were willing to make that pledge–that we shouldn’t just receive them just because, or in order to draw attention to ourselves.

I was able to resist the temptation to eat even a little bit during the day.  I put myself and my weakness into God’s strong hands.  I think I was right about my Lenten Lesson this year!

Another sign of confirmation about the Lesson came unexpectedly, during what would have been my lunch break.  I went into our quiet reading room and began reading Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation; we’re reading it in our book club.  The first essay, “What is Contemplation?” ends on this note:

Hence contemplation does not simply “find” a clear idea of God and confine Him within the limits of that idea, and hold Him there as a prisoner to Whom it can always return.  On the contrary, contemplation is carried away by Him into His own realm, His own mystery and His own freedom.  It is a pure and a virginal knowledge, poor in concepts, poorer still in reasoning, but able, by its very poverty and purity, to follow the Word “wherever He may go.”

Emphasis mine.  Because I think that phrase sums up part of my Lenten Lesson: to follow the Lord wherever He may go.  Sort of like… a sheep following its shepherd.  Yes?

I think Merton’s essays will be good Lenten reading!

I intend to make this Lent an especially austere and sacrificial one.  There is just so much in our world that needs our prayer and fasting.  So much to offer up!

A joyful Carnival/Mardi Gras to all.  I treated myself to tacos this evening–a modest but dearly beloved pleasure!  I know this probably sounds cliché, but I’m giving up sweets this Lent.  I’m also going to fast on bread and water every Friday.

Life has already been sort of desolate of late.  Patrick’s birthday last Friday stirred up the old leviathan of grief.  My spiritual life has been a bit arid and fraught with doubt.  I’ve given into things I’m not proud of.

This morning, I wanted to go to Confession.  But something kept me back.  This is probably going to sound really odd, given all the wonderful things I say about Confession and the way I try to encourage everyone to go to Confession, but today, I didn’t think going to Confession would help me.  In fact, I thought it might do harm.  The reason is that I’ve suffered at times from a hyper-scrupulosity that tries to substitute itself for genuine contrition and confidence in God’s tender mercy, and wherein going to Confession is more an indulgence of an obsessive compulsion than a true seeking of God’s grace and love.

With God-given restraint, no doubt, I avoided running to church.  I took some deep breaths and went straight to work.  My mind cleared and I recognized things for what they were.  I was just in a rough patch, a whirlpool of emotion and grief.  Maybe I haven’t been at my best or brightest, and maybe my faith hasn’t been burning so hotly or standing too firmly… but these aren’t sins!  They’re human struggles, human sufferings–Heaven knows they’ve not brought me any joy or pleasure.

And really–it’s been less than a week since my last Confession on my fairly regular bi-weekly schedule.  I may not be perfect, but what on earth had I done since then that was so horrible and offensive?  Hyper-scrupulosity will make one see sins where there are none, or take the merest failing and blow it out of proportion.  Thank God for restoring my perspective.  I’ve definitely noticed that it is in my phases of grief and/or doubt that hyper-scrupulosity slithers in and tries to make its move on me.

After I parked my car and began walking to the building, I thought to myself: we really are like sheep sometimes.  Not very bright creatures.  Wandering off, occasionally winding up in a thorny crevasse.  And when that happens, we are not abandoned.  No, our Good Shepherd comes in after us, lacerating His own limbs, shedding His own blood, so that we might be safe and comforted and healed once more.  When we struggle and suffer most, He is strongest and most merciful.

By the time I arrived at the building, I just wanted to sit down on the curb and weep, because I suddenly felt so close to His heart.  I felt like I had been found and rescued, and everything was all right again.

What does all of this have to do with Lent?  Most every Lent, I discover a theme, a guided learning experience.  My Lenten Lesson, I call it.  And I think that possibly this year’s Lenten Lesson will be about “being sheepish.”  Not in any bad sense.  Just trusting more in our Lord’s mercy.  Putting myself in His arms.  Not chasing after my own designs so much.  Being more genuine.  Being more humble.  Seeing in greater clarity my weak humanity and all its struggling and suffering… and not freaking out about it as if I’m supposed to be some other creature.  Just today alone, I’ve come to realize that sometimes I think I’m supposed to be God–I’m supposed to be the infinitely strong, mighty, wise, and merciful one–to the point where I don’t feel like I need to turn to God or entrust myself to Him.

I guess there’s something in all of us that craves to be in control at times.  I know I can be a control freak now and then.  But that’s not who we are, that’s not how we’re made. We don’t thrive that way, nor do we learn anything.  We need God to be God, and us to be ourselves.  We need to be the rescued wayward sheep at least sometimes.  And that’s OK.  Really.  It is.  It’s fine, it’s normal, it’s the definition of humility–which is, ironically, probably the greatest of all virtues.

Oh… I can already tell that this Lent’s going to be the most challenging so far!

Dear brothers and sisters, let us pray for each other!

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(Image from a painting at St. Catherine of Siena Parish, Metairie, Louisiana)

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