French braiding my way to a holier Lent

Photo by Nicole Steele Wooldridge
Photo by Nicole Steele Wooldridge

I am trying to teach myself how to French braid hair. As the mother of two daughters, one of whom was able to donate 10+ inches of hair at age three (with pigtails to spare), I feel that mastering this skill now is a savvy investment in my future time management.

My first attempt at a French braid several months ago was pathetic. Upon seeing herself in the mirror, even my four-year-old felt the need to be gentle with my ego, reassuring me in a Daniel Tiger-inspired pep talk: “Well, it’s not the best … But keep tryin’!  You’ll get better!”

She was right, of course. After months of disastrous braiding attempts, I can now send my daughter to school with her hair in a style that is (if not quite red carpet-ready) at least identifiable as a French braid.

Photo by Nicole Steele Wooldridge
Photo by Nicole Steele Wooldridge

It occurred to me, while doing my daughter’s hair on Ash Wednesday, that a French braid is a pretty good metaphor for the Lenten spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

Throughout Lent we are meant to attend specifically to these three “strands” of holiness; weaving them together, bolstering each one as we proceed. They should be united in a tight, well-ordered plait. If we neglect any one of them—if, for example, we fast but do not pray—then our Lenten braid is lumpy and uneven.

My Lenten braids are always lumpy; at times, they are so disheveled as to be unidentifiable. I tend to begin Lent with lofty expectations of my imminent spiritual accomplishments, only to be disappointed by the reality of my own clumsiness. I usually have to “start over” at least once before the end of February.

But, just like French braiding, the more time I spend attempting to fast, pray, and give alms, the easier it is to do so … and the more natural it feels to integrate one into the other, weaving them together.

Though fasting is only one-third of the equation, it’s typically the “celebrity” pillar of Lent. In past years, I have taken the path that Pope Francis advocates: fasting from a specific uncharitable attitude or behavior. This year, though, I wanted to try to assume those fasts of the soul into a more traditional fast of the body: specifically, abstaining from alcohol.

As I politely decline a glass of wine with dinner, I am reminded to say a prayer of thanksgiving for all the necessities and luxuries I can enjoy this day, and—before bed—I donate the cost of a drink to charity. In researching the charity to which I wish to donate today, my mind and heart are opened to the multitude of crosses that others bear, and the multitude of ways in which I could train my fingers to better be the hands of Christ in easing their burdens.

I fumble; I fail; I begin again. The more I practice, the tighter the strands become.

By the end of Lent, I emerge with a braid: imperfect and unglamorous, but nonetheless beautiful in God’s eyes.

Nicole Steele Wooldridge writes from the Seattle, Washington area, where she is attempting to teach herself some basic middle-school skills. Next up: sewing on a button.