As a Midwesterner, I don’t know much about deserts. I’ve visited some deserts in places like Namibia and New Mexico though, and have always found the environment very strange and mysterious; it’s not really barren as a lot of life and beauty thrives in the dryness. I certainly don’t know much about springtime in such a landscape, but I understand that desert dwellers also experience the season—just very differently than we do here in the Midwest.
Yet, I know Lent is really not about the dryness and emptiness we associate with deserts—even though it’s often what fasting feels like at first. Rather, Lent is about signs of spring: refreshment, renewal and growth.
We manifest these signs of spring to each other as we offer gestures of love, kindness and service to one another during these 40 days. Our actions make us into signs and transform the world around us. We freshen the environment, the culture, and our community and make marks of preparation. In a way, our actions become like little party decorations that get us really ready for the power, mystery, conversion and celebration that happens in Holy Week.
Our Lenten actions are definitely signs of spring. Our prayers, fasting and almsgiving are vibrant signs of hope for a hurting humanity. Our works of mercy in motion can be encouragement for each other, when we keep flopping and failing in our Lenten practices, getting discouraged and realizing, again, how much we need God. As we share Christ’s love may we keep our eyes open and see the green life coming forth from each of us, and may we keep our ears open to hear the beautiful, encouraging songs of the returned birds.
The signs of spring are all around us in this Lenten desert. May we lean on each other as a beloved community and see each other as signs of real renewal and hope.
So far this Lent, I have already encountered the parts of me I don’t like.
As I try to stay dedicated to my Lenten practices of fasting, prayer and almsgiving, I seem to keep catching a glance of myself in the mirror: I see that I am a sinner, I am weak, I am broken. Over and over again I face the truth: I must be totally dependent on God and God’s mercy.
I’ve been talking to God through prayer about this familiar cycle that I go through every Lent (and during ordinary time too.)
It shouldn’t be a surprise, really, that my struggles repeat because I’m consistently dealing with the same person: me.
And then I thought about some Lenten Messy Jesus Business posts from the past that remain meaningful to me. I’d like to share them with you!
Here are 5 of my favorite Messy Jesus Business posts about Lent:
1.) “This is HARD” by Jerica Arents, April 8, 2011, is a reflection on how the inconvenient fasts from plastic, sugar and electricity ultimately brought her closer to her community.
2.) “The weirdness of witnessing,”February 28, 2012. The season of Lent freed me to be real about how I don’t always like to be “out there” and share my faith for many reasons, but one is because when I sin then it can reflect badly on all Christians. Bonus: “What if I stumble?” (a song by DC Talk) is mixed in!
3.) “Lent: Divorcing our bad habits,” March 3, 2013. A British indie pop band Autoheart has a really catchy song called “Lent” and it inspired me to think about which bad habits I might need to “divorce” in order to gain true freedom in Christ.
4.) “Becoming a new fruit and fertilizer“ by Amy Nee, March 21, 2013. Amy writes how compost became her Lenten mantra as she worked to get back to the basics of her faith. Some wisdom from the 13th century mystic and poet, Rumi, is incorporated beautifully.
5.) “Ashy Remembering,” March 7, 2014, is a poem about distributing ashes on Ash Wednesday and remembering my own mortality and need to repent as I touch other human faces.
What Lenten reflections and prayers speak to you during your time fasting in the desert this year?
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.
Ready or not, Lent is here and it is time to get into it—time to get into the spirit of prayer, fasting and almsgiving in order to experience great conversion during this sacred season.
It’s time to make some changes.
On this Ash Wednesday we are marked with signs of Truth: all of us are sinners, all of us need to repent, all of us have humanity in common. The fact that we came from dirt and shall return to dirt is one of the great equalizers among us.
Because we are not God we all are imperfect, and must work together for growth and development. No matter which Lenten practices we commit to today, let’s remember it takes a lot work—two months on average—to really change our habits.
The ashes say it: Lent is a time to remember how connected, how communal we’re designed to be. As we change and become better together, let us remain patient—let us be compassionate when changes come tough.
Together, then, changed by our Lenten practices and the grace of God, let us unite as one and return to God with all that we are.
Lent: we’ve been into it for over a week now. We are in this spiritual wilderness desiring to be better people, hoping to change. All sorts of actions are getting us into spiritual-shape again: fasting, almsgiving and prayer. Through each simple act, we confront our weaknesses and give up on trying to make it on our own. We recognize our need to depend on God.
Yes, here in this Lenten desert we are parched and challenged by the Truth: we must give in to God’s ways. God’s ways are communal. Living according to God’s ways will allow us to grow into the people we know God made us to be. God made us for interdependent relationships. God made us to put love into action.
In this Lenten wilderness, it shouldn’t take long for our penitential living to turn from classic navel-gazing into phenomenal social transformations. This life of faith is not about usalone. Christian living is not a me-and-God thing. Rather, we give, fast and pray to remember that this faith-life is about all of us together loving like God loves. Our sacrifices and disciplines are meant to make a positive difference in the lives of others. Jesus’ sacrifices certainly did just that.
This means I gave up sugar for Lent–not just because I want to get healthier but because I want the entire global sugar industry to become more just. Naturally then, if I am avoiding sugar during these 40 days, I must also pray and advocate for changes in the corrupt food system, for improvements in the lives of the workers on sugar plantations. This Lenten sacrifice is not just about me. It’s about loving my neighbor like Jesus taught me to.
In our culture, it can be challenging for our Lenten actions to not have self-centered motivations. When we’re comfortable and distant from the suffering of others, our focus can become too inward. When we feel the impact of sacrifice it can become difficult for us to remember the reason for the tradition of our Church: we give things up in order to help the poor. It takes a different type of intentionality to connect with the people who we love and want to help with our actions. Fortunately, there are several tools to help us connect to our global community. For the love of others, let’s utilize these resources because otherwise it can be hard to believe that our actions make a real systemic difference.
Thank God, Scripture assures us that God is with us in this relational struggle even when the doubts are intense or the sacrifice is too hard. God strengthens us and revives us while we fast for the good of others:
Some days, I feel like I just want a restart button.
At times, I even feel this way about my life.
And then, when I look at all the problems in the world, aware of how complicated and messy the issues of injustice really are, I frequently feel the same way.
I just want to press a button and let everything reboot, wake up all refreshed and renewed and ready to do things much better, to be more like we’re supposed to be.
That’s why I love this sacred season of Lent. I want to grow, I desire holiness, I pray for justice. I really do believe that things can be better and through God’s grace, we have something to do with it.
Back on Ash Wednesday there was a lot of chatter about what people were “giving up” for Lent. I didn’t chime in then, but now I’ll tell you some of what I’m up to. A full Lenten experience is not just about “giving things up” but committing to any activities of prayer, fasting and almsgiving in order to, in a sense, restart our relationships with God and others.
In fact, I am finding that the actions I have been taking work much more gradually than it does when I push a restart button. People and social problems aren’t machines, after all. Forty days is probably a good amount of time for a proper restart.
In my living community, the sisters and I are eating vegetarian then donating the money we would have spent on meat to the area warming center. We are holding Friday nights as a silent hermitage time for contemplation. Plus, a couple of us started volunteering at a free community dinner, which I think we’ll continue doing after Lent.
Lastly, today I’m leading a small group of youth in a CRS Food Fast retreat. Please say a prayer for the high school students who are fasting and will engage in service-learning and prayer activities after school. All of our actions should help us be in solidarity with those who are really hungry in other parts of the world.
The restart process is not pain-free, of course, but it’s so worth it. Basically, the activities of Lent are chipping away at the hardness in my heart and helping me learn some big lessons:
The acts of service and fasting have taught me that I am way too comfortable, not just materially, but also with my plans. I’ve realized that I have fallen into a bit of a rut of liking my routine to be a certain way. Even though I have good intentions, I practically walk around every day with my focus on my to-do list with a giant “do not disturb” sign hanging from my face. How can I help build up the kingdom of God if I am not open, flexible and available? Am I awake to the work of God?
Speaking to being awake to the work of God, the activities of prayer have helped me gain a deeper desire for more intimacy with God. I entered Lent looking forward to my Triduum because then I could have a little vacation. Now, I am hoping for a silent retreat over those days, almost isolated from civilization.
Lastly, I believe again that every little action has an impact. I realized that sometimes when I pray or do acts of charity I am tempted to become cynical about whether I am really making a difference. Now, because of some feedback received from others, I’m remembering that the littlest things do indeed matter; we just don’t always know how. This interdependence among us reaches across the globe to our brothers and sisters who are desperate for the pennies that we throw away, too. Our choices to be in solidarity with them this Lent really improve their livelihood, thanks be to God. This video helps me understand that:
Ultimately, the Lenten restart button that I was hoping for has had an impact on me. I have gotten disturbed. I am changed. I am getting to be a bit better, we all are.
“Eternal God…You know that these men have testified falsely against me. Would you let me die, though I am not guilty of all their malicious charges?”
This week the daily mass readings begin with the cry of Susannah, unjustly accused by corrupt officials, sentenced to death in the presence of the people. We read that God hears her. But Susannah is not saved by a bolt of lightning striking down her foes, or by being mysteriously transported to safety. God arouses the Holy Spirit stirring a “young lad,” Daniel, a witness in a crowd of impassive witnesses, and this small person shouts, “I will have no part in the death of this woman!”
People in the crowd are startled. Many had been grieved by the proceedings, but this was out of their hands, the elders, the leaders had decided. Yet here is this stirring, “What did you say?” they ask.
And Daniel says to the people, “Have you become fools, you Israelites, to condemn a daughter of Israel without due process and in the absence of clear evidence?”
In this story, the people respond, turning the tables by turning the accusers over for questioning. It is now they who must prove their case, which they fail to do. So Susannah is delivered, back to her family, and the accusers take her place in receiving the full penalty of the law.
I am struck by how clearly this story illustrates that God moves by moving people. Would this providential delivery have been possible had Daniel not responded to the spirit stirring him to speak? What if the people had not listened? What does all of this mean for us in our time?
Hearing this story for the first time, my thoughts immediately went to an outcry that is currently falling on deaf ears. There are 166 men being held at Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba. They are held there without due process, accused in the absence of clear evidence. Their detention is indefinite, a torturous reality. Adding insult to injury, the sacred texts of these men of faith are being tampered with and desecrated, letters from their wives and children are censored or withheld. At Guantanamo, more men have died (9) than have been convicted of a crime (6). The men are experiencing a living death, confined to their tomb until the day that their corpse can be released to their family without fear that it will speak of what it has suffered.
Yet the men there are finding ways to cry out, to God, to their captors, to this crowd of people in the United States, to us. They are using the only tool they have left, their own body, hunger striking. They are not demanding release, only humane treatment, just procedures.
As a woman of faith, I sense the Holy Spirit seeking to arouse a voice in the crowd. We are given the example of Daniel for a reason. God desires compassion and justice and these divine gifts come through people who respond. But what can we do, when the prisoners are not standing directly before us, when the crowd is not crushing about us?
We can still adopt and adapt Daniel’s words, “I will have no part in the death of these men,” “Have we become fools, to condemn men without due process and in the absence of clear evidence?” And we can find the crowds to speak it to, and draw a crowd to speak it with us.
Witness Against Torture (WAT), a group of men and women from across the United States, has been seeking an end to indefinite detention, due process and resettlement for those detained, and the closure of Guantanamo Bay detention center since 2005. Together we are responding to the hunger strikes with tangible actions. Beginning March 24th (Holy Week, for those in the Catholic tradition) we will hold a seven day solidarity fast. Throughout that week we encourage people to call the White House; send letters to the prisoners acknowledging that they have been heard by the public, even if officials have yet to respond; join us for vigils (see witnesstorture.org to find out if there are any happening in your city, or start your own); participate in the fast for a day or more; spread the news in any way you can.
Adnan Latif, a Muslim man who, after eleven years of detention, died at Guantanamo wrote a poignant poem in which he asks, “Who will save the hunger striker?” He died, without ever having been proved guilty of “all their malicious charges.” How many deaths before the cry is heard?
It’s been nearly a week since we started all this.
With ashes smeared upon our foreheads, we committed ourselves to new disciplines. Our motives are good: we have dreams and desires to refresh our relationship with Jesus. We’re in the desert to detoxify and prepare for the joy of that great Sunday, the holy day of Easter.
We’re trying to let God have with us what God will. We have a long way to go to really be ready. Our trying turns into trials. Over and over we keep encountering an important Lenten truth: we’re really not that great.
That lack of greatness is an uncomfortable consciousness. For some of us, it’s much easier than others. Some people are incredibly disciplined and are used to working on getting better. Their life is structured around the flow of “yes to this,” and “no to that.” It amazes me.
For others like me, the attempts of taking on Lenten disciplines are simply an experience of knowing again and again how undisciplined I really am. I keep messing up and forgetting. I keep wondering if I need to pick a new focus–all my attempts are just making me feel awful about how terrible I am at being disciplined.
You see, one of my intentions is to simply take a 10-minute afternoon walk and focus only on the beauty of creation during that time. How’s this been going? Well, it hasn’t. It’s awful. I pile on excuses about why I can’t make that pause or just completely forget about it. Overall, I keep realizing how much I need Jesus; how much I am clueless and lost and nothing without him.
The thing about Lent is that it is indeed a time when we must pray, fast and give alms so we can be more open to hearing Jesus’ messages. To start, it’s much easier to listen to Jesus if we are aware of how much we need to listen. Maybe that’s the whole point. I need to be humble, weak and feel sort of pathetic. I have to let go of my pride to really be dependent on God. Then, maybe I’ll be much better at letting Jesus satisfy my thirst.
In the meantime, I am so thankful that in my trials of renewing my relationship with Jesus I have this time to refresh and this space to restart.
I am a slow learner. I hear the sacred invitations of Lent and I still move toward the darkness. My life is busy right now and I wonder if my time with God in the desert is caving in on itself. Is it true that I need to understand darkness to be a child of the Light? Are all my examinations of the truth really helping me get ready for the sunrise? Or, am I making things harder for myself?
Together we’re in a Lenten desert where things aren’t too comfortable. God seems to have turned up the heat and hallowed out cool caves of confusion for us to take refuge. Our explorations of the caves of truth cause us to wonder. Is there a reason why we want to examine the rock formations within the dark? Can it also be our nature to stand and face the horizon, waiting to watch the glory of the sunrise? As light emerges can we listen to the songs of creation getting ready for a New Day?
I ponder these scenes in my heart when I remember to pause during my busy days. God is certainly using the local, natural beauty to ground me as I run around. I have to pay attention while I try to serve, teach, help and love. Every day is full of the Truth that can bring me closer to God. Truth can be rocky, heavy and hard.
This week daylight savings time has warped my routine some. My alarm clock becomes part of my dreams and I tune it out but the singing birds stir me out of slumber. Then, in a daze, I watch the sunrise over Lake Michigan and read psalms. I bow, blow out candles and say the Eucharistic prayer that my sisters say in our adoration chapel every hour with me while I am away on mission: “Sacrament most holy, Sacrament Divine, all praise and all thanksgiving be every moment thine. Eucharistic heart of Jesus, furnace of Divine love, grant peace to the world.”
I gather my stuff and rush to work. On the way I encounter the needs of the world, hoping to bring the peace I pray for. Every child needs positive attention, every person needs to know that she is loved. I can’t keep up with the demands of being a teacher, no matter how much sleep I sacrifice or prayers I pray. It seems that I have to remain real. It’s more true to admit that I am doing my best but I would like to do better. A stone of truth in the cave is named: I must be humble.
I read the news and check my email. Awareness of injustices layer upon more demands. The freshness of the signs of spring stir worries and unrest. I am worried about the safety of the city, the garbage wrapping around fences and coating the land. I get crabby and annoyed that other people are messing up the world, but I fail to look in the mirror. Yet I am getting used to violent and cruel language. Along with other sufferings and wrong-doings, I tune things out instead of caring. Another rocky truth in the cave is named: I could be more loving and passionate about injustice.
When evening arrives I am exhausted but still spinning in restlessness. I realize I survived another day of mean misunderstandings and heavy work, but my guilt is stronger than gratitude. I feel like I need to keep working as long as I can or I won’t be ready for tomorrow. God stirs in my heart, asking me to sabbath. Come, rest in me. I shrug off God’s desert invitations and turn instead to shame and sorrow; I think I need to work harder. A boulder of truth in the cave is named: I need to trust in God.
I am glad that Lent is longer than a month because I seem to be a slow learner. I am getting it though, little by little, and with each new awareness my relationship with God is being restored and renewed. Eventually I’ll be able to leave the cool cave and re-encounter the heat of the furnace of Divine Love. Eventually all this Lenten work will ready me for the best sunrise ever: the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the true Light of the world.
And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed. But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God. -John 3:19-20
As I continue to try to be a faithful disciple of Jesus I continually confront the messy, cluttered commotion along the Way. I feel like I keep switching from being stunned by the beauty and caught in my human confusion.
The words I pray every morning stir my questions:
“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, for he has visited and brought redemption to his people. He has raised up a horn for our salvation within the house of David his servant, even as he promised through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old: salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us, to show mercy to our ancestors and to be mindful of his holy covenant and of the oath he swore to Abraham our father, and to grant us that, rescued from the hand of enemies, without fear we might worship him in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord* to prepare his ways, to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God by which the daybreak from on high* will visit us to shine on those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” –Luke 1: 68-79
Good and simple and the Light on the path is mighty. The Light that shines on the path of peace glows into shadows. There’s dusty despair floating around in the Light creating a strange beauty. A calm collects and settles, yet the stains of sin feel like stones in shoes. We talk about the beauty of God’s mysterious ways while a bad taste of discontentment lingers on our lips. We remember that although we can revel in the goodness of God, we can’t forget the injustices and suffering that still are in need of great redemption.
I’ve been on a blogging break for the past couple weeks as I finished up a semester of teaching, took a Christmas vacation and went on a silent retreat. (Thanks to Sister Sarah and Steven for writing while I was away!)
The Christmas season is ending and I am renewed. The blessings of the incarnation have re-rooted me in the core of who I am: a child of God. As God’s child, I am on the path of peace. A theme of my retreat was God’s Way of Love and I considered the power of the Prince of Peace being alive and home in the broken darkness of our messed up world. Jesus’ way of blessing the brokenness of humanity permits us to have hope and trust. God is enfleshed and alive in the fullness of humanity. Back in my classroom I’m marveling with my students about how Jesus is a material man. He’s word, light, love, energy, feelings, image, sound, alive and fleshy. God is really awesome!
Still, my rejoicing feels mucky. Many of my companions on the journey carry a lot of truth. In the faces of many I see tears, hunger, fear and sorrow and I know that oppression is not over. There’s more work to do. My friends who are peacemakers remind me that we can’t sit down and give up. Jesus loves us (yes he does!) and love is a powerful, world-changing force.
We can’t slow in our work for peace and there’s an urgency in the good news. We keep creating the new ways of God- no matter how mucky they seem in coming. The muck can be depressing. It’s unpleasant, but if we’re with Jesus it’s where we belong.
Nowadays, the horrors of state sanctioned torture and indefinite detention are especially disturbing me. Guantanamo prison has been open for almost 10 years despite its human rights and international law violations. Some of my activist friends are hard at work in Washington D.C. and here in Chicago with incredible fasting, protesting, educating and praying. Like they did last year (and Luke wrote about) they’re fasting and creatively, non-violently asking our government to end the injustices of torture and detention. I join them as I am able: in solidarity as I fast too (from television), in action to increase awareness, in advocacy for justice and in prayer and contemplation.
I’m remembering how before Christmas we heard the news that all the troops were coming home from Iraq. I was still in an advent waiting space in my spirit, but my mind told me I ought to rejoice and celebrate a victory for justice. A shadowy waiting space and an enlightened celebration: I wasn’t able to unite the two. Instead, I felt my joy fall flat. I was opposed to the war before it began and my young activism was formative for me. The ending of the occupation felt so long overdue that it felt more frustrating than favorable. Peacemaking is mucky.
I am grateful that Jesus was born into the broken, confused places within our spirits and within our world. As we suffer and struggle we find that we must remain open and empty to experience the fullness of God. We must allow continual conversion. After all, we can accept that on the path of peace there’s joy of the incarnation: we are forgiven, free and blessing the brokenness in the world. The darkness cannot overcome the light, light shines through the darkness! Thanks be to God!