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.

 

 

In Its Time

“He has made everything beautiful in its time.” (Eccl 3:11)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Image courtesy of freeimages.com

I am sorry to disappoint everyone but this beautiful passage, spoken ages ago, passing the test of time to get here today, was written just for me. I am sure of it. For the past few years, I’ve been a student of journeys. I’ve walked with others, and I’ve certainly been on my own. You learn a few things when you’re the witness of some deep suffering and exalted joys.

1: You can often feel bipolar because huge climactic changes can happen in the flip of a switch. These moments cause you to reflect on the moment before and freeze that emotion, whether it was calm, peaceful and excited, or moody, dark, and anxious.

2: There is an immediate reactionary building period to those changes. It’s where you set your resolve, your personal priorities and rudimentary boundaries. This event might change you as a person and you want to make sure you have the inherent qualities you like about yourself.

3: In between those moments of change come big expansive times of anxious doubt (Why hasn’t anything good happened in a while? Am I chasing the wrong dream?) and envious comparison (Everyone seems to be happy and have their desires. Sigh).

4: Peppered in that anxious doubt are moments of excited clarity. I can feel something is about to happen, but what? How do I prepare for this?

5: And then BOOM another change, another moment, and you start the process all over again.

It’s exciting stuff, change. Life. And the older I get, the more I appreciate the unfolding of it. Six years ago I started my awareness of infertility. Three years ago I was suddenly notified of my impending divorce. Since then I’ve been focused on healthy healing and patient waiting with quiet, such quiet anxious hopes. It’s so hard to trust. It is. But I can firmly say that I have definitely tried my best at it. And wouldn’t you know? I’m getting married this Saturday.

Indeed, He has made everything beautiful, in its own time.