by Holly Mohr
I woke up grateful and eager for Lent last week. Ash Wednesday couldn’t get here fast enough. (No, this is not normal for me).
I spent the early part of the week making a short but meaningful list of Lenten practices I wanted to take on (or at least attempt), in order of importance and likelihood of maintaining, along with a couple “stretches” tacked on at the end. What’s more astonishing to me is that I made this list with a calm heart and unhurried mind. You might even call the manner with which I drew it up “prayerful.” (I repeat, this is not how I normally experience the onset of Lent).
This hope, this prayerfulness, just sort of came upon me, seemingly out of nowhere. I’ve decided it’s a gratuitously-given gift. I accept.
On Ash Wednesday morning, I decided my kids would go to school late, and I piled us all in the car for morning Mass. The idea of rushing us there right before bedtime sounded like a special kind of hell that would actually pull me away from the spirit of sacrifice (Thomas Merton’s line, “This is not the penance God asks of you” echoed clearly in my ear), while the idea of not taking them at all made my heart sink a little. While I do want to give my children a freer and less reflexive version of a faith life, I still want them to have traditional experiences, and I certainly want them to be conversant with the liturgical year. Plus, what better way than to start the day than with prayer to kick off a season, I thought, even if that prayer includes my three-year-old running out of the pew repeatedly, pretending over and over that she needs to go to the bathroom?
As someone who works for the Church, I typically experience the beginning of Lent with a sense of panic (So! Much! Programming!). And since the 2018 PA abuse report came out, the panic and frenetic mind has also been accompanied by a low-level depressive state, a feeling of being in a constant, unwilling state of perpetual Lent. The idea of giving up something new, of fasting, has seemed exhausting at best, but more often ironic and false.
But Lent has a lot to offer that sidesteps the Catholic Church’s propensity toward clericalism or (ironically) toward legalism. Yes, there are rules for fasting and abstinence, but there is also a (very) wide berth for discerning one’s own sacrifices and opportunities for growth within the season. And while getting my family to church on Holy Days of Obligation often fills me with dread (want to hear about the year my then-toddler tried to expose himself to the older couple next to us on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception?), going to Mass on Ash Wednesday somehow feels empowering.
It’s not a Holy Day of Obligation. You don’t have to be there “as prescribed by law.” But it has enduringly proven important to the People of God, so we show up. I love that. I love that there are days within the Church Year that are just so meaningful, so filled to the brim with nurture (even in the midst of a fast), that people pack the pews at all times of day.
Over and over again in my life, I discover that I am head over heels in love with the richness and treasures of my ancient faith tradition, as long as nobody is telling me how I should be experiencing it. (I’ve found this applies to any seemingly authoritarian voice, even that of our cultural masses—only now, since Marie Kondo has quasi-disavowed her KonMari Method, have I been able to get through The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Now that the pressure’s off, I’m open to finding something true in there). Something about the somber silence of Lent is calling to my wounded, skeptical, introverted little self, suggesting there is something for me here. It’s whispering to me to tiptoe closer again.
Clericalism, legalism, patriarchy—these love to rear their ugly heads all over the place, and my faith tradition seems to be one of their favorite haunts. They will present themselves again, probably even this Lent (hell, maybe right after I click “publish” on this article).
But for now, my heart is ready. I’m praying my prayer books, re-exploring my rosary beads, fasting from social media during family time. I’ve even considered Stations of the Cross and fish fries. We’ll see.
“My sacrifice, Lord is a broken spirit; God, do not spurn a broken, humbled heart” (Psalm 51:19). My heart has been broken for so long. So many of our hearts have been broken for SO LONG.
As Corita Kent says in her Immaculate Heart College Art Department Rules,: “Rule #1—Find a place you trust and then try trusting it for a while.” I’m giving it a shot. Wish me luck.