Didn’t we just do Lent? If you were thinking this as we approach the pause in “Ordinary Time” with Ash Wednesday next week, Feb. 17, you are not alone. Or weren’t you even thinking Lent was starting so soon? For so many of us it’s been a year of one, long Lent with the relentless pandemic. “I lie awake and moan,” the psalmist laments, “like some lonely bird on the roof. All day long my enemies taunt me; they mock and curse me. Instead of food, I have ashes to eat and tears to drink. Because of your furious wrath. You have lifted me up and thrown me down” (Psalm 102:8-11). Have you had days feeling like that? Do we need any more misery?

Well, if the purpose of Lent is to make us feel more miserable then may I say, respectfully, we are missing the whole point. God sent his only-begotten Son into the world as our Savior, to deliver us from the misery of this world, to free us from the bonds that enslave us to sin and other vicious cycles, to open our hearts to the joy of his merciful heart and to lead us into a kingdom of peace where we come to eternal life. If that doesn’t sound like the world we are living in, then maybe we’ve been getting too used to suffering without a savior.

The ancient disciplines of Lent do indeed prescribe various forms of fasting, prayer and almsgiving. Generally, these do entail some kind of sacrifice or suffering. Most of us have experienced a year of great upheaval, where we have been deprived, to a greater or lesser degree, of the contact and the comfort of family and friends because of sickness, social distancing and death. It has been a lonely journey. The motivation to somehow “sacralize” this with a season of 40 days of more sacrifices may not be strong. Relax! Unmitigated pain and suffering is neither the meaning nor the purpose of Lent.

At the risk of boring you, let me tell you about a “perfect” Lent I once designed for myself, without the advice of my spiritual director, whom I was afraid to let in on my scheme. I was in my early seminary days at the time and our beds only had soft mattresses without a box string for support. I was one of the lucky ones who had inherited a bed board underneath from the former occupant so the mattress would not swallow me in the middle. I got it into my head that I could put the board on top of the mattress — to imitate, perhaps, the holy hermits and desert fathers? — and get off to a really miserable Lent as I had set out to do.

Maybe I hadn’t had enough theology or thought I was just enjoying the Italian food too much — I was at the North American College in Rome — so I decreed forthwith no pasta, no wine for my Lent. Bread and water, no dessert, whatever I could do to imitate Jesus in the desert, short of passing out in class. Wasn’t that, after all, what Lent was for, to imitate Jesus in his suffering? Now I was beginning to feel spiritual. Maybe I would even have an out-of-body experience.

I won’t weary you with the other exquisite ways I invented to be sure I did not enjoy the blessings of the Italian sun or the beauties of the vibrant landscape and street life, but you get the dark picture. I thought I would be feeling so holy as I concentrated on all the things I was giving up and how closely I was identifying with the poor. Except for one thing: I was not talking to Jesus! This was part of my delusion about the Christian faith that I finally only emerged from years later — the idea that being a good Christian was to try to be “good” so that God would be nice to me. I misunderstood the message that Jesus came to save me because I was not okay and because he loved me, not because of my proof of virtue, but because of my sins — or, rather, in spite of them.

Well, this went on for 40 days and 40 nights, somber and sincere as it might have been in my unenlightened, deluded state of mind. I looked forward to some Easter miracle when I would finally crawl out of the self-imposed moribund state in which I had entombed myself. On Easter Sunday, I went through my transformation: a normal bed again, a pasta and wine dinner with all the trimmings, back in the sun and looking for … what to happen? I had no idea.

You see, I thought I had followed Jesus’ lead into the desert, but I was not following HIM! I had come no closer to my dear Lord, personally, than any other poor soul who languishes in pain and suffering — and probably far worse off than I ever was — with no salve from our Savior. I was not looking to be saved. I was trying to heal myself … by doing “holy” things. And now, with all my props removed, I was alone on an empty stage. It is at that point, I needed a real Lent, the kind I had deprived myself of by my own fantastic design. No wonder I felt no joy. My plan had failed.

How I got it into my head that suffering and mortification were somehow intrinsically holy — they are not — I have no idea. Thank God I had the grace that Easter Sunday to feel nothing or, at least, nothing special besides a good meal and a better bed. Sure, I had attended Holy Mass and heard peals of beautiful church bells announcing the glorious Resurrection, but I was not primed to be saved. All I had done was lock down and called it Lent!

Pardon me. I do not want to mock our lockdown or our Lent-like pandemic. But suffering and misery are not enough to make us holier or more Christ-like or even to help us bond more closely with the poor. It takes something more. It takes the presence of God — our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. What the world needs now, more than ever, is love sweet love, as Dionne Warwick prophesied. Jesus IS that love and any Lent worth its true meaning must draw us closer to him. HE is the only WAY out of our misery.

I have heard wonderful witness from good people who have found the last dreadful year salvific, who describe their experience of something like a retreat, a time to realign priorities. I have personally experienced countless graces and moments of insight, surprising revelations of mysteries I had not acknowledged or appreciated. Doors have opened and new paths emerged in ways I cannot count, even as others have closed.

Forgive me at this point for not being more specific. That is for another day. I would be doing you no service to tell you right now about my personal joys and consolations when what I want more than anything else, what I will be praying for throughout this coming Lent, is you — that YOU personally will be surprised by grace, that you will open your heart to what Jesus wants to tell you, what he wants to do for you if you will let him. Please do NOT imitate the example of my awful, self-devised Lent where I missed the whole point of Lent: to come closer to Jesus.

The only reason for any more sacrifice or discipline is to let go of the silly things we think we can’t do without so that we will latch onto the real thing, the real one who can save us from all that pins us down to bad patterns, attitudes and addictions in our life. I have mine, you have yours. But we are together on this journey. Beginning with Ash Wednesday we sort of “bottom out,” admitting that we are “dust and into dust” destined to return. We come to ground zero: our inability to save ourselves, but the very point at which Jesus encounters us, the still point where he becomes the Lord of the rest of our life. And if we will only give him permission, and don’t get too controlling, we may be in for some big surprises at the incredible, dazzling light that begins to dawn as his sun rises in our hearts (cf. 2 Peter 1:19)

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