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Monday, February 22, 2010

Lenten Dread

The true focus of Lent is on a renewal of Baptismal promises. A turn away from sin and a return to true Life offered in the Gospel. However, many of our Catholic Lenten rituals come to us from pre Vatican II, when the focus of Lent was more on the suffering and death of Jesus.

And that is why I have been dreading Lent.

 I find it hard to focus on that for very long. The reason used to be a childish one. It was because I felt guilty for my own shortcomings.  As a child I remember a certain elementary school teacher vividly describing the mechanisms of a crucifixion and then reminding us (as we pondered things like hypovolemic shock, mind numbing pain, and asphyxiation secondary to the body's inability to expand the thoracic cavity efficiently) that it was for our sins that this human sacrifice occurred. That stuck with me a long time.

I have since processed a lot of this guilt into a much healthier faith life, a topic for a whole other conversation.

But the reason I now find it hard to concentrate on this suffering for very long is because there is still so much suffering in the world. Jesus' death and Resurrection bought us all everlasting Life after death, but it did not wipe out the darkness and sorrow in this life. It wasn't meant to.

I find it nearly impossible to  bear witness every single day to the personal tragedies of the individuals I work with, and then meditate on even more suffering when I get home without getting deeply depressed. 
Watching The Passion of the Christ in 2004 did not inspire me, or help me feel closer to God, or turn me away from sin. It traumatized me because I can not watch senseless violence inflicted on a living creature without a great deal of mental anguish. It effected me the way Requiem for a Dream did and I have only seen each film once because of it.
Working as nurse has only augmented my aversion to thinking about suffering for the sake of just thinking about it.

What I find brings me closer to God is focusing on the promise that He will "wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore" (Rev 21:4).

I always rationalized it as "we need the forty days to really appreciate the miracle of Easter".  But I don't buy that anymore. Why does Death get 40 days and the Resurrection only get Easter Sunday?  How can anyone expect me to manufacture sadness for this long? Why isn't anyone else going crazy with this gloom? 

Then, at the 8pm Mass at St. Clement's on 2/21 something amazing happened. Father Peter gave a sermon that made me think of Lent in a refreshing new way.

"In forty days," he said, "you'll be watching the Red Sox play baseball. Think about that." We thought about it.
"In forty days," he continued, "you'll hear birds outside your window. In forty days the bulbs I planted will be growing and in forty days that tree outside will have buds."

I have been taught about mentanoia, and the deep change we are supposed to go through during Lent, but my own experiences with Lent have been too wrapped up in a focus on the darkness to really feel a change within me. 

But Father Peter put it this way. He told us he's been cranky recently. Irritable. It's hard to do service to others when you're irritable all the time. So he gave up answering email at night and started reading books.
Sounds selfish, right?  Sounds less like a sacrifice and more like a leisure. Not very "Lenten" at all. 
But it made him stop being cranky. It made him less likely to be short with his loved ones. It made him happy to get up and go to work in the morning. It made him better at helping people.
He asked us to replace one undesirable behavior or habit with a good one some how.

"In forty days," he asked us all, "everything will look different. What will you look like?"

I like his take on Lent because it matches the beliefs I am newly forming. Which is to say:
I believe that Lent doesn't have to be about gloom and doom and pain and hurting. 
It's about finding new ways to combat the gloom, doom, pain and hurting we see every day.
Lent is a training season for putting our own needs second, and the needs of others first. 
It's a challenge for us to seek out the suffering of others and to find ways to relieve it.
Because then and only then do we imitate Jesus' victory over evil and death.

So as Lent marches on I find myself still having some problems with the ways the Church goes about observing the season. Many people have to go into the Dark place to find the Light. The long Latin prayers, and the stripping the church of decorations, and the songs about bleeding and dying bring them there. 

 But  I am beginning to  understand that I personally do not have to go into that dark place if it will actually be more harmful than useful. There are other ways to glorify God, and those are the actions I must identify and engage in. For that will bring my personal mentanoia. 

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