At one point, in one of those raw moments of honesty, I gave God an ultimatum: "Either you show me what you want me to do, or you'll lose me. I'm hanging on by a thread here. I need something now!" On reflection, I think I was influenced by John Piper's JOB poem, which my friend Chris Koelle illustrated and we later turned into an animation with Aaron Greene's beautiful score. Job, at a moment of desperation, which of course was much more intense than my own, prays:
Oh God, I cling with feeble fingers
to the ledge of your great grace.
I was really down and out. This is not dissimilar to what all of us go through at some point—a moment of truth. What do I really believe? Am I a Christian because of my upbringing? Do I "believe" because it is convenient, and it makes sense for the time being? We all have to own those and similar questions at some point. Life and what you believe about it will always come down to brass tax. So it was with me in the beginning of 2011.
I attended this thing for young singles that was run by First Presbyterian Church called Life. And yes, that got annoying to ask/be asked about. Anywho, it met once a week, Mondays I believe at the time, and was run by Phil Hargrove, a minister at First Presbyterian and a man that I admire greatly. It was one week after my "ultimatum" with God and either the first or second time that I had attended Life when he gave a talk about Lent. Now I had heard about Lent of course. I grew up in South Bend, Indiana, a democratic Irish/Polish Catholic town with a little university with the mascot of the "Fighting Irish" which you may have heard of, but I had never really given Lent much thought. It was something for someone else to do other than me. After the talk that night, I couldn't stop thinking about it.
Three days earlier, I had just been hired to fill in at New Covenant School in Anderson as the Art Teacher (Yes, unemployment was one of the many things that contributed to my despair). I was talking the Headmaster, Joey Thames, with whom I befriended immediately, on the Wednesday morning after I got hired, and a day and a half after the talk at Life. He asked me what I was going to give up at Lent. I had been thinking about Lent a lot in that short time but I had not planned on giving something up yet (I'll get into that concept later.). I thought about it for ten seconds. It was obvious to me. Anyone who knows me knows that I like a good red wine, a high-gravity beer and a single-malt scotch as much as I love anything else. I told him him I was giving up all forms of alcohol. He said the same. It was nice to have a companion who sympathized with my "tremendous" sacrifice.
To this day, I cannot for the life of me remember how or why I entered through the large wooden doors at St. Mary's Catholic Church at 7pm that night for Ash Wednesday. But I did. I was there. I had never been inside before, nor had I ever been to a Catholic Mass. Here I was at St. Mary's with all the bells and smells, the stained glass, the immaculate choir and Fr. Newman's thundering homily delivered to a packed out sanctuary. It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I'll admit that I don't remember much except the imposition of ashes and a series of questions posed by Fr. Newman: "Why is it that all four masses today have been standing-room only? Why is it that so many Protestants–that's me–are here for Ash Wednesday Mass at the beginning of Lent? What is it that draws them here?" The question itself was enough. I don't even remember what his answer was exactly. I didn't know why I was there myself. But I spent the rest of Lent figuring that out.
Before I go on further, it is time for a crash course in all things Lenten. Lent, which starts tomorrow, is a liturgical season lasting forty days that was started by at least the 3rd-4th century. It is called Quadragesima (forty) in Latin. Our word Lent comes from a Germanic word meaning spring. The forty days of Lent lasting from Ash Wednesday to Maundy Thursday mirror Jesus' forty days of prayer and fasting in the wilderness. As we are the Body of Christ, we aim to participate in his life. Lent is a time of prayer, penance, and denial of self to help bring about true repentance of sins and renewal of baptismal promises in preparation for Easter. The self-denial part is what everyone is familiar with. Chocolate, beer, fast-food, Facebook, sex... whatever it may be, the faithful willing give it up. And not just the faithful, even those on the fritz with the Catholic Church take part. Everybody recognizes in some way that denying ourselves of the things we desire is good for us. But giving up something is not the point in itself. What does it point to?
At the heart of Lent is baptism. All through Lent, the catechumens (those unbaptized) are being prepared to take the Sacrament of Baptism at the Easter Vigil, be confirmed in the Church and to partake of the Holy Eucharist. For those who are baptized, God has washed you with cleansing waters of his Spirit and grafted you into his body. Our sins are forgiven and we are no more children of wrath, but have become sons of God. We are told to "sin no more." But we are not yet perfect. We fall back into sin, and we stop ascending the ladder to heaven to have a look around. The original sin is removed, but we have to be remolded because of our tendencies to sin. And this is a slow process for most of us—a lifetime process in fact. The Church recognizes our lapses, and so Lent is one way where the Church corporately can recognize the need to return to our baptismal commitment by the grace of God. Lent is, in a sense, a preparation to once again say our "fiat" to God, to detest our sins and to come before the throne of grace saying "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed."
The penitential aspect of Lent touches both dimensions of our being: the spiritual and the physical. Matching prayer and penance with abstinence of food and the "thing desired" propels us to a higher plane than what we normally experience. You sense that you are both an angel and beast at the same time. You have cravings for food and true sorrow for sin. They work together. Your craving for food turns into a longing for the Resurrection, and your sorrow for sin brings you to the threshold of things hoped for. For me, it was one of the first times, if not the first time, that I sensed my own uniqueness as a human. We truly are unlike anything else. To paraphrase Frank Sheed in Theology and Sanity, there is the spiritual world with all its angels, principalities and powers, and then there is the physical world with its galaxies, stars, planets, water, soil, plants and animals. But if these two dimensions were opposing triangles, they would meet at one point. And that point is us—humanity. We straddle the spiritual and the physical. We are truly unique.
Now this might seem like a remote connection to the purpose of Lent, and it probably is, but for me it meant everything. Here was something that I experienced that cut to the core of my being: by denying myself, I felt complete. The paradox was tremendous. Lent was absolutely liberating. The weight of sin and the despair of not getting what I wanted was lifted off my back. The physical acts of contrition really meant something to me spiritually. I KNOW they did. I had always kept my spiritual side distinct from my physical side. The two did not really relate. Lent changed that. I recognized within me that the spiritual and the physical dimensions, although they are distinct, make up ONE person—me—whoever me actual is. It was as if I was staring at myself in the mirror for the first time. It was a pretty self-aware moment.
I stuck it out for the forty days. As we were nearing the end of it, I had a sense of hope like I had never felt before. Yes, I wanted to let the wine flow like the wedding feast at Cana, but the hope of the Resurrection shown so bright that everything else that I had placed my hope in became translucent and faded in comparison. It was one of those moments, and you know when you have it, where you have intense clarity and peace, and you feel you understand the cosmos.
Was Lent an emotional response? Emotion definitely played its part. But remember, Lent is 40 days long—there is plenty of time for the emotion to wear off and the desire to break your fast comes on strong. Emotion was the outpouring of something I had finally grasped. I was being pulled into something that was much bigger than I. Lent transcended me. I realized I did not know much of anything during those forty days and that was a good thing. Even as I write this, I know that I have only scratched the surface into the mystery that Lent draws us into.
In his own way, God was answering my "ultimatum" by preparing me through Lent to be received in his Church. As Lent prepares us for the Easter Season, and the Passion the Resurrection, for myself Lent was also preparing me for the Holy Eucharist, the source and summit of the Christian life. Now, Lent is but one facet of my conversion, but I can say after the Lent of 2011 I had the grace to lay down my prejudice towards the Catholic Church and find out what she is on her own terms. I wanted to know what the Catholic Church says she is in herself and not what others said about her. Lent had showed me that those two were not adding up.
So for all you Protestants out there who may not have participated in Lent before, give it a try. Go to an Ash Wednesday Mass or service tomorrow and surrender yourself these forty days. Devote yourself to prayer. I suggest the morning and evening prayers of the Liturgy of the Hours. Fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, do not eat on Fridays, seek reconciliation with your neighbor and return to you baptismal commitments. You have nothing to lose (except the thing you give up!) and everything to gain. This is not a hidden invitation to become Catholic. Many Protestants as well as the Eastern Orthodox communions also participate in Lent. And this is just my story. God meets us where we are. We are human and he uses the most human of means to reach us. Lent is just that. Its one of the most human ways in which God comes to meet and restore us. Lent, for all its penance, is a tremendous gift when coupled with the hope of the Resurrection. This Wednesday will be the beginning of my fourth Lent, and I will ever thank God for it.
And I learned what it was that brought me to St. Mary's that night. It was Jesus Christ.
Out of the depths I cry to You, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice.
Let Your ears be attentive to my voice in supplication.
If You, O Lord, mark iniquities, Lord, who can stand?
But with You is forgiveness, that You may be revered.
I trust in the Lord; my soul trusts in His word.
My soul waits for the Lord more than sentinels wait for the dawn.
More than sentinels wait for the dawn, let Israel wait for the Lord,
For with the Lord is kindness and with Him is plenteous redemption;
And He will redeem Israel from all their iniquities.
~De Profundis (Psalm 130)