Oh God, who desire not the death of sinners,
but their conversion,
mercifully hear our prayers
and in your kindness be pleased to bless these ashes,
which we intend to receive upon our heads,
that we, who acknowledge we are but ashes shall return to dust,
may, through a steadfast observance of Lent,
gain pardon for sins and newness of life
after the likeness of your Risen Son.
Who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.
(Prayer for Blessing and Distribution of Ashes)
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
dust, I am
we all are
a fragment of a larger whole
floating through the open air
only visible to the naked eye
when illumined by light
some days I am
certain I was once
a piece of His flesh
and now I am floating
trying to reunite
with my maker
my true home
most days I am
like a fragment
of an ignored
or crumb of
yet the grace
the dust of me,
of us all
is an offering
able to unite
to give life
may this true love
On Valentine’s Day and every day, my celibacy is steeped in a whole lot of love.
What does it mean to live consecrated celibacy on Valentine’s Day? In a world obsessed with relationships and sexuality, what does it mean to give that part of myself to Christ?
I have been living religious life for 16 years now, and my walk with celibacy has changed. When I was first discerning vows I met a wise, older sister who told me that I would struggle with each of the vows of poverty, obedience and consecrated celibacy in their own time. So far, she has been right. Just when I thought I was totally comfortable in these vows, life changed and caused me to look at them in a new light. I made vows for a lifetime, but live them out day by day. Every day I choose to be a religious sister. Every day I choose to be celibate.
For me, celibacy is about relationship: my relationship with Christ and consequently the shaping of my relationship with everyone else in my life. I love fiercely. I am madly in love with Christ, but I also love my sisters in community, my friends and my family like crazy. And yes, sometimes I am attracted to someone. Sometimes I find myself riding that wave of emotion on the inside and choosing appropriate boundaries on the outside. Like anyone already in a committed relationship, I can balance between choosing constancy to my commitment while honoring my own feelings. For me, celibacy is steeped in a whole lot of love.
Surprisingly, central to my love for Christ is love for myself. For many years, as I struggled with depression, I also doubted my own self-worth. Self-hatred kept me in bondage. Slowly my friends and family loved me into life, and one day it all shifted. I stopped hating myself and began the process of learning to love myself. This has probably been the greatest shift of my life and a surprising challenge to my celibacy. Suddenly, the whole world was filled with emotion. I never knew that I could love so much. My feelings were new and raw. My love for God suddenly meant more than it ever had before. The change was so strong that I began to ask myself if I truly wanted to be celibate.
Why am I celibate today, as I am, with my whole and beautiful self? I turn to seek the wisdom of those who have gone before me. I opened a journal I kept when I was first discerning vows and found some quotes.
“Many if not most persons who are drawn to a celibate life are not celibate because they made a vow of celibacy. Rather, they are drawn to vow celibacy because of a strong internal sense of prior claim. They sense that celibacy is a given of their being … The reason for celibacy may always remain difficult to explain … But for them, the claim of God on their lives is such that to give their whole embodied selves in sexual union with another person would be a denial of their own inner authenticity and integrity.” – Elaine Prevallet, SL
I feel a prior claim. Though it is not always easy, I like celibacy. I like how it organizes my life around love without one primary relationship. I like the sense of authenticity and integrity it gives me. I think my vows in religious life help me to be more “Sarah.” I am most fully myself as I live this life. For me, this life is all about relationship. The words of Sandra M. Schneiders, IHM, speak to my heart.
“Sometimes people ask religious how they persevere in a state of life within a church whose institutional corruption is so clear to them, and in which they may even be the objects of unjust persecution. Whatever answer they give, often the real reason is religious life is not, for them, a commitment to an institution, but a relationship with Christ that, in the final analysis, no authority can touch.” – Sandra Schneiders, “Selling All: Commitment, Consecrated Celibacy, and Community in Catholic Religious Life”
I love the church and the people of God, but when people wonder how I can stay in a church that often is so flawed, this is my reason. I am in love with Christ and Christ’s people, with my whole self today. This is a choice, one that I live every day. Even on Valentine’s Day.
Sister Sarah Hennessey is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration based in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She grew up in North Carolina as an active Quaker and became a Catholic in 2000. For her, Jesus’ Messy Business includes falling in love with Christ AND with the People of God! Her heart is on fire for the Hispanic community, poetry, singing and accompanying people through birth, death and the living that comes in between. She currently ministers as the perpetual adoration coordinator at St. Rose Convent, as a Mary of the Angels Chapeltour guide, and a volunteer at Franciscan Hospitality House.
I have a confession to make: I kind of like Tim Tebow, the professional football player turned professional baseball player. I respect him. In fact, I admire him.
Since he played for football teams other than my favorite, the Green Bay Packers, I’m a little shy to admit this. Also, he has lots of critics. For some, the criticism is strictly about his football skills or lack thereof. Others don’t like the way he speaks freely, openly and consistently about his relationship with Jesus. He is often dismissed as a Jesus freak, a religious radical.
But when I look at his witness with some openness and empathy, I find it admirable. Win or lose, he kneels in prayer. Win or lose, he praises and gives thanks to God. Most importantly, he lives his faith off the field; extraordinarily generous with his resources. He knows these resources are not his alone but gifts of God to be shared. He is not perfect, but he keeps Christ at the center of his life.
When I heard Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome of the challenge to keep Christ at the center of our lives, I thought of Tim Tebow. Paul writes that we are baptized into Christ, so we must live “for God in Christ Jesus” (6:3-4, 8-11). Do we live for God, above all else? Do we keep Christ at the center of our lives? Do we love anything more than we love Christ: family members, friends, career, work, status, reputation, money, iPhones or our favorite sports team?
In Matthew 10:37-42, Jesus speaks to the twelve about this demand of discipleship: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me …” Jesus is not telling us to not love our fathers or mothers, sons or daughters. In fact, he is blessing and reinforcing the special bond of love that exists between parent and child, brother and sister. He invites us to embrace this love. But then he challenges us to extend it and expand it, and to keep him at the center of it.
The challenge in the Second Book of Kings (4:8-11, 14-16) is to keep Christ at the center by showing hospitality as does the influential woman who shows kindness and hospitality to the prophet Elisha, taking initiative by arranging a room and meals for him.
And in Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus says that this hospitality should also be extended to “strangers,” to immigrants. Jesus says that when we welcome strangers we welcome him, and it is the basis of the final judgment.
Does our church practice the hospitality that each of us has received from God? Is the church “a living witness” – as we pray in the Eucharistic Prayer – to this hospitality? What are the boundaries of welcome, and who defines these boundaries?
Have you ever felt unwelcome in the church, or that your gifts were unwelcome because of your gender, race, class, legal status, marital status, unique family, sexual orientation or the language you speak? If so, I apologize. This lack of welcome is wrong. It is a sin. It is a failure in our call to show God’s hospitality.
In order to more fully witness to God’s love and hospitality, it is important that we listen to anyone who has not felt welcome, to listen with openness and compassion, without judgment, and to commit ourselves to a different way of relating, loving – following the prophetic example of Jesus.
And we must be critical in our hospitality. Even in offering hospitality and welcome, we can remain in a position of domination and privilege over another. We can be condescending or paternalistic. Can we be totally open to the other and willing to learn from them too, recognizing that they have something important to contribute?
Jesus embodied this hospitality. And he continues to welcome us and embrace us by feeding us, nourishing us with his Word and Sacrament. Let us always keep him at the center of our lives and share his hospitality with others.
Note from the editor: This blog post is a version of a homily that Fr. Luke Hansen, SJ, preached at the Church of the Gesu on July 2, 2017 (Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Originally from Kaukauna, Wisconsin, Luke Hansen, SJ, has been a friend of Sister Julia’s since 2004 when they met at an airport on their way to serve in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in California. Passionate about justice and peacemaking, much of his experience in ministry has been centered on serving adults and adolescents who are incarcerated. In October, he will begin a licentiate in sacred theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. (Photo credit:www.jesuits.org)
It seems lately that many people around me are having a tough time. Perhaps it’s just my perception but in my day-to-day conversations and my friends’ social media posts, there are many struggling just to keep it together. One symptom I see is a recent proliferation of what I consider to be pretty stoic statements like ‘head down, move forward’ and ‘keep calm and carry on’—the sort of things you say to yourself when you’re just trying to put one foot in front of the other.
A small subset of these sentiments is particularly intriguing: those made with the intent of trying to convince us to just accept the past.
“The past cannot be changed, forgotten, edited, or erased … it can only be accepted. You can’t change your past but you can always change your future. Even God cannot change the past.”
Now, in general, I support these ideas. All too often too many of us live in the past, dwelling on bygone hurts given and received, wishing things had been different. That’s never good, and we frequently must be reminded to forgive ourselves and others. We need to focus on the task at hand—to struggle with the sufficient evil of the day and to work for this day our daily bread. In as much as these sentiments urge us to do the good in front of us, I support them.
And yet, something seems so resigned. So sad. So short of the glory of God and the good news of the Gospel. Frankly that last one sounds like a challenge. I think, in a very real way, God can change the past. God does change the past.
But perhaps God does not change the events of the past, amending instead their meaning so fundamentally that history is, in a very real sense, altered. We need only think of Good Friday for an example. Imagine Jesus’ death on the cross. Imagine the humiliation and defeat that everyone who knew him—his friends, his disciples—experienced on that day. Imagine the torment and agony of Jesus himself. And think about what all of that means now, in light of Easter. Jesus’ resurrection transforms completely the meaning of his death. The cross is now a sign not of defeat, but of victory. It becomes a sign of our redemption. It is our salvation.
When Jesus was raised, did his past change? Technically, no. He still suffered, died on the Cross, and was buried. Yet God’s grace rewrote everything around the event so completely that it’s not really the same occurence anymore. And while the Cross is the most striking example of our faith, it’s hardly the only one. In the Easter Vigil we proclaimed that the sin of Adam is no longer the tragic failure that led to our exile, but the lucky break that called forth our Savior. In the Gospel we see Jesus proclaim the death of Lazarus is not a sign of decay’s inevitability but rather its impotence when compared to the glory of God. By giving the past new meaning, it is altered.
I believe the same will be true of all our suffering, so long as we use that suffering to grow closer to Christ. God’s grace will reach back and alter our perception of those events so completely that we will call them “good,” just as we now call the day of Jesus’ death “Good.” Now we see through a glass darkly, but once our vision clears we won’t even recognize much of what had come before.
In the preface to his imaginative exploration of heaven and hell in “The Great Divorce,” C.S. Lewis expresses the same thought about our current lives in light of our eternal destiny. Speaking about our time on Earth after all things pass away he writes “But what, you ask, of earth? Earth, I think, will not be found by anyone to be in the end a very distinct place. I think earth, if chosen instead of Heaven, will turn out to have been, all along, only a region in Hell: and earth, if put second to Heaven, to have been from the beginning a part of Heaven itself.”
God can change the past. By giving what we have experienced a new meaning the past is recast. The power and might of God is greater than we can imagine; it’s not only a new start, but a different history. This is one of the lessons of Easter—Christ’s light pours forth everywhere and reaches into every dark space, even those behind us.
Steven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, with his lovely wife, his adorable daughter and his very strange dog. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His interests and passions include Aikido, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.
I grew up as a Quaker in North Carolina. Now I am a Franciscan Sister in Wisconsin. You may think I have traded hush puppies for cheese curds and simple silence for complicated ritual. But actually I find God constantly holding me in love and light through them both. For me, there is more in common between these two paths than difference.
Especially now as we enter Advent, some particular Quaker sayings speak to me on how to prepare for the Christmas event of the coming of Christ.
Speak only if the words improve upon the silence
The Quaker (officially the Society of Friends) meeting I grew up in was unprogrammed, meaning that our worship service was an hour of silence. During that silence if you felt a “leading” you could speak. Maybe you would share an insight you had that week, a thought on a piece of Scripture, or even sing a song. In any case, there should be a deep prompting that the words you are going to say are worth breaking the holy silence we are all gathered in.
This seems to me a good habit for every day, but especially for Advent. Have I gotten lost already in the Christmas season or am I silently preparing in expectant waiting? Am I speaking from my heart, from a deeper sense of life-giving hope?
I’ll hold you in the Light
Currently, I have a prayer ministry as the coordinator of prayer intentions at our convent. When I was a Quaker, instead of “I’ll pray for you,” it was more common to hear my Quaker friends quickly say, “I’ll hold you in the Light.” They are referring to that Light of Christ that shines in everyone, the unifying communion of God’s love that is always ready to hold us. In the Light, we can see our gifts and our struggles more clearly. In the Light, we are not alone. In the Light, I am completely known as I am.
My heart is always touched deeply by this phrase of love and concern. The term of “holding” signifies to me more than a fleeting prayer. My friend will hold me, sustain me, and even join me in that Light that unites us all. This phrase reminds me that Advent is a time of communal retreat. It’s not something we do alone. The people of faith are preparing for the coming of Christ and together we are united.
That all flesh should keep silence
So, why sit in silence and wait? The foundation of Quakerism is that God communicates directly with each and every person. The Inner Light is within us all. The noise and clutter of the world get in the way. But silence clears a path. For me, personally, sometimes sitting in the silence was also like sitting in the dark. I never knew what was going to come next. I let go of my own expectations, even of my own words, and simply waited. As one Friend states:
The one cornerstone of belief upon which the Society of Friends is built is the conviction that God does indeed communicate with each one of the spirits He has made, in a direct and living inbreathing of some measure of the breath of His own Life; that He never leaves Himself without a witness in the heart as well as in the surroundings of man; that the measure of light, life, or grace thus given increases by obedience; and that in order clearly to hear the Divine voice speaking within us we need to be still; to be alone with Him, in the secret place of His Presence; that all flesh should keep silence before Him. ~ Caroline Stephen, 1834-1909
I love this! God leaves both “a witness in the heart” as well as in our “surroundings.” As we enter Advent, am I both seeking within and without to see God’s love made visible? Advent as preparation is both about waiting and about seeking at the same time. We know the Light is coming, and the darkness helps us hunger for it more.
“And then, O then, there was one, even Christ Jesus who could speak to thy condition.”
This is the quintessential Quaker quote that started a movement. George Fox, who founded the Quakers, was an avid seeker. From his journal he records how he traveled around asking questions both of priests and Protestant pastors, but no one seemed to help him. But then, with great joy he heard a voice which told him that Christ Jesus “could speak to thy condition.” God communicated directly. From that all else flows—the silent meetings, simplicity, conviction not to pick up weapons; the sense that every person has dignity and all life is holy.
For me this is also the Advent lesson. As we wait for the Light, time collapses. The beautiful Scripture readings lead us through the three-fold coming of Christ. In the past, Christ was born and changed the world forever. In this very moment as I wait, Christ comes within my own heart. As we try to build the kingdom of justice and peace on earth we anticipate the future fullness of Christ’s coming. Christ indeed does speak to each of us where ever we are in our own condition. Taking the time to turn to God opens up the space for that direct, but often subtle experience of God.
I will admit that in the convent there is a fair amount of ritual around Advent—special readings, colors (violet), traditions, and songs. (If I hear “O Come Emmanuel” one more time!!!) I’ll never forget the first Sunday I realized that most of the sisters had dressed liturgically and were wearing violet to match the season! But ultimately, it is a time of waiting and expectation. Waiting in silence for the Light is the Quaker’s specialty. I find myself returning to silence and the Quaker wisdom that raised me to come to a deeper appreciation of the season. Truly, Christ has come, is with me now, and will come again. My heart spills over with hope, especially in these darker days. As Brian Wren says so simply, “When God is a child there’s joy in our song. The last shall be first and the weak shall be strong. And none shall be afraid.”
Sister Sarah Hennessy is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration based in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She grew up in North Carolina as an active Quaker and became a Catholic in 2000. For her, Jesus’ Messy Business includes falling in love with Christ AND with the People of God! Her heart is on fire for the Hispanic community, poetry, playing guitar and accompanying people through birth, death and the living that comes in between. She currently ministers as the perpetual adoration coordinator at St. Rose Convent, as a Mary of the Angels Chapeltour guide, and a volunteer at Franciscan Hospitality House.
We live in a society that has a tendency to divide us into enemy camps. Violence and squabbles due to differences like politics or culture have become strangely normalized.
No matter what has become culturally acceptable, the Gospel challenges us to live counterculturally. Although some people may avoid those they don’t like or agree with, we reach out to others with love and compassion. While others discriminate against or systematically oppress those who are different because of their race or beliefs, we seek to welcome and appreciate diversity. Such bold actions help us know our belonging in part of an inclusive, universal Church. To embrace and celebrate diversity is central to what it means to be Catholic. As challenging as it may be, when our family of faith unites as one we are obeying the words of Jesus Christ.
Jesus, thank you for the beauty of human diversity and creating us as one. May I recognize and promote our oneness today. Amen.
This last month was a strenuous one in my youth ministry. It involved back-to-back weekend events, and I found myself putting in tons of extra hours and working for a 21-day stint with only a single day off. It involved late nights and early mornings. It was hard, tiring work.
During one evening of this labor I found myself murmuring. I was reciting facts of my overwork to myself in my head but in that whiny, grumbly, self-pitying voice that we all have at times when we think we’re being put upon. “Poor me. Working so hard. Does anyone notice?” Pout … pout … pout.
Tired of working (and feeling lazy and aimless) I did what any normal American millennial would do: take a quick break for some Facebook browsing. As I clicked and browsed around, I noticed that a similar complaint was being made by a number of my Facebook friends—but in entirely different tones of voice.
One friend was just finishing up a huge project, but was pleased with herself and her team’s accomplishments and reveling in the large bonus she and her co-workers had received as a result of their success. A different friend had just completed a master’s thesis and another had finished a doctoral dissertation; both were celebrating the completion of well-written study and the reward of new degrees they’d receive as a result. Yet another had just finished laboring over a piece of art, and was now wearily showing off the completed work of her hands.
All were tired, all were fatigued, and yet they were leaning against their shovels and smiling. All had taken hits and suffered sacrifice, but were pleased because the task was worth it. And here I was, working in the vineyard that I chose and to which I believe God called me, and all I was doing was grumbling.
We were made for work. Work has dignity, and it calls us to be co-creators in this world we have been given. But if you listen to a lot of talk about ministry these days, it seems like the biggest fear facing us as ministers is the possibility of working too hard. Set boundaries on your time and space; limit yourself; be careful; and, whatever happens, don’t burn out. The world is on fire with fear and despair and loneliness yet it’s putting in some overtime that worries us.
I am not saying there isn’t some real truth in avoiding overwork. We live in a world that is obsessed with busy-ness and work for work’s sake; that has forgotten the meaning of the word Sabbath and the importance of rest. We need to believe in a God that is bigger than our efforts, and to avoid the idolatry of self that believes we are the world’s savior and it’s all up to us. We do need to take time to stop, to breathe, to rest, to recover.
But in avoiding the one extreme, we must avoid falling into its opposite. In order to truly rest, we must truly work first. It is good to wear ourselves out, and there are few things holier than falling into bed at night after fully exerting ourselves in the labor of a task worth doing. And if we must always count on Christ to fulfill our shortcomings and complete our labors we must also remember that, until he comes again, Christ is counting on us to be his hands and his feet in this world.
I frequently recall that, after a presentation all about avoiding burn out, a religious sister once said, “Yes, we should avoid burn out but let us not forget that, in order to burn out, there needs to have been a flame burning in the first place.” If we are tired from our work, perhaps the salve for our souls is not less work, but to remember why we started working in the first place. Conspiring with God is so much easier when we are inspired by Him. Keeping our eyes on the goal—remembering for what purpose and for whom we work—makes yolks easy and burdens light.
This week’s guest blogger, Michael Krueger, first met Sister Julia while working as a dishwasher at St. Rose Convent during his undergraduate years at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Inspired by those sisters and a Franciscan education he is an affiliate with the FSPA and, in La Crosse, was coordinator of Place of Grace Catholic Worker House and The Dwelling Place (a home for adults with developmental disabilities). Michael currently lives off of a rural highway near Madison with his wife and two-year-old daughter.
Twice, I have had the opportunity to see singer Glen Hansard in concert: once at Milwaukee’s historic Pabst Theater, and again at the Orpheum Theater in Madison. His singing has always impressed me for its range; the sheer volume and raw emotion he conveys. Often his voice emerges as a faint whisper; slowly increases in dynamic to a startling cry—almost a scream; then fades back just as quickly into the silence from which it came. He carries a powerful voice that speaks to the most intimate moments of life, singing as though he were an old friend. One song in particular, Her Mercy, evokes that intimate desire of relationship and ends with a repetitive invitation:
“And when you’re ready … for her mercy … and you’re worthy … it will come.”
In March of last year Pope Francis made the announcement that 2016 would be known as the Year of Mercy. He did so without precondition, without limitation; not everyone may be ready, but we are all worthy and it will come. The works of mercy, much like the beatitudes, are concrete examples of the Gospel carried out. They can be simple and straightforward: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked. But more so than action we are called to partake in the relationship of mercy that isn’t always straightforward—never simple—yet life changing and affirming.
This is the identity of mercy demonstrated by Pope Francis on Holy Thursday as he washed the feet of those incarcerated; visited the Greek Island of Lesbos with Patriarch Bartholomew to call attention to the plight of refugees; opened a Vatican conference challenging the notion that war can never be considered just. The difficulty of promoting mercy, though, is that we must also be willing to participate in the pursuit of justice for it to come. Sometimes it’s through the smallest of actions—such as a walk—that together we begin down this path of mercy toward justice.
On Good Friday I had the opportunity to participate in a Stations of the Cross walk, sponsored by Madison Catholic Worker group, in the city’s downtown neighborhoods. The entire route was roughly a mile long and there were 10 stations, each represented by a building or an organization that sought to convey a specific theme or issue that calls for our attention, invites a response. It was the first time we’d organized this event and had hoped for a small number of participants. Seventy-five people gathered in Cathedral Park near the capital building. At 4:30 p.m. an opening prayer was read and the First Station: Jesus is Condemned to Death, came to a close. Stillness pervaded the park.
From that stillness emerged the single beat of a drum followed by footsteps, slow at first, as we all began to walk. Again the beat of a drum. The voices of those walking whispered, hushed, harmonized, hummed: “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom. Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The drum beat kept pace; participants carried simple wooden crosses painted white. Pause. Stillness. Noises of the surrounding traffic. We slowly stopped in front of the Dane County Courthouse. Amplified over the crowd a reader spoke the Second Station: Jesus is Given His Cross.
“And when you’re ready … for her mercy … and you’re worthy … it will come.”
We prayed for our immigration system: families separated, those locked in detention centers. We stood where contemporary issues in which the reality of Jesus’ ministries—the physicality of the Gospels—are present: a homeless shelter, the police department, the county jail, the veterans museum. We sought to encourage our understanding of mercy and to challenge our association of justice—not a straight and absolute path, but a meandering and often fragmented journey into a greater depth of relationship and a wider sense of community.
I have now participated in a walking Stations of the Cross four times in the last five years (with the Franciscan Spirituality Center of La Crosse, Wisconsin) before this year). Prior to that I’d never felt a deep connection to the standard Stations of the Cross observed in any Catholic parish. For some reason this more physical form of reverence reminds me that the Gospel is an active presence in today’s society. The crucifixion made clear the sufferings in the world, but it was the resurrection and Jesus’ encounter with the disciples that would render His presence to the modern world, incarnate in the stations of today. Through Jesus’ resurrection we are able to encounter Christ in this modern narrative of the Way of the Cross. What Easter has brought us is an encounter with mercy.
“And when you’re ready … for her mercy … and you’re worthy … it will come.”
Additional photos, Stations of the Cross materials, and more information about the Madison Catholic Worker can be found at www.madisoncatholicworker.org.
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.
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.