“In his heart, Frodo begins to understand. The quest will claim his life.” ~ Galadriel, The Two Towers (2002)
Lent 2016 began on February 10.
On February 11, 2016, Mark sent another query letter to another job opening across the country from our home. It was no big deal. We had done this hundreds of times before. Usually, we heard nothing back.
To us, these two things had nothing to do with each other. The timing was an accident – I didn’t even notice it. But the coincidence later came to hold a permanent significance to me.
You see, I didn’t intend to give up anything for Lent last year. It was my very first serious Lent, and I wasn’t fully Catholic yet. I was still a Candidate.
I thought (with some justification) that my life in general was, at that time, penitential to a degree that I just wasn’t sure I could keep it together if it got any harder. So, I changed our family “fun jar” (where anyone can contribute their pennies and the savings can be spent on a fun outing) to a “giving jar,” I committed to pray the Morning Offering daily, and I obeyed the Friday abstinence (which I do year-round anyway). And that was it.
I had no way of knowing what Lent would really be like for me as a Candidate. That job application, for all its importance, was only part of the story of my first Lent.
The road into the Catholic Church is a long, beautiful, and sometimes painful one. At the beginning, I really didn’t understand why it had to take so long. But I found that there are some things that one can’t learn in a book, or by pulling a late night on Google (no, seriously). Some paths simply must be walked,
even especially when we don’t understand, when we can’t see. There were certain things that had to happen during Lent, for me. They were hard things, but also things that turned my heart more firmly toward Christ.
One, I needed to make my first Confession. This was a deeply difficult experience for me, which I have written more about here. In Confession, I gave up my pride. My appearance of having it all (or maybe any of it) together. I also gave up my fear – fear of judgement, of rejection. I had been rejected before, in a church where I thought I was safely at home. It was doubly tough to then bare my soul with the ruthless honesty required to make a good confession, and it took me a long time afterward to relax and believe that it was really going to be okay. (But it was, more than okay. Confession is awesome, guys, I don’t know how I lived without it).
Second, during Lent, I came to really embrace the Catholic attitude toward the Magisterium of the church. I had been Reformed, a child of Luther and Calvin, for a long time. As a passionate adherent to Sola Scriptura, what I believed had had to come down to my own interpretation of the Bible. I could be advised, informed, inspired by the church and by the great (protestant) theologians, but I couldn’t trust them. I could only, in the end, trust my own study, my own judgement of what the Bible taught. (That got me in plenty trouble.) As a Catholic, I am no longer the final authority on what the Bible is saying on any given topic. Just because it’s clear to me, doesn’t make it so. (And if “clear to me” was the same as “clear,” we wouldn’t have so many denominations.) That’s remarkably freeing, a weight of misplaced responsibility lifted – but it’s humbling, too.
Finally, during Lent, I came to something of a breaking point in my personal life. Our steady downward financial spiral and our long, fruitless job search were a torment to me. It’s seriously humiliating to have a lot of kids and be in financial trouble. It’s terrifying and all-around stressful. I spent most of my “free” time either filling out job applications, researching academic job search strategies, or finding creative ways to juggle our finances so nothing got shut off that month.
For years, I had prayed and hoped and worked for and agonized over financial stability as an obvious good – which of course it is. But not every obvious good is given to every person. This one certainly had eluded us, in spite of our neverending efforts to pull ourselves out of our mess.
As it happened, that query letter that Mark sent out on February 11 got answered, which meant we were now ready for the nail-biting joy of Skype interviews. We had had several very near misses in Mark’s job search in previous years, sometimes making it to the very final round of interviews. My prayers over those were always variations on a theme: “Please, we need this job. Please, give us the opportunity to fully provide for ourselves. Allow us the dignity of a job that pays our bills. Allow us rest from this trial.” And sometimes, when the rejection letters came, they felt like rejection letters from God Himself. I knew it wasn’t so, in my head, but I couldn’t change how I felt. The stress was unbelievable.
This was how I came, one day during Lent, during the weeks of interviews, to a broken moment of prayer, crumpled in a heap on the bathroom floor (where else can a busy mom pray?). I could no longer hold onto the hopes and dreams for our future and family that had driven me for so long. I had a death grip on my idea of the way my life ought to go, and too many of my prayers had been little more than one long, loud tantrum that it wasn’t turning out that way.
This time was different. This time, the spirit of Lent took hold of my tired heart. In that moment of prayer, I gave up those dreams for Lent. I gave up my own hopes, goals, and plans for my life and for our family. I gave up wanting what I wanted, and asked for the heart to want what God wanted, instead- even if what He wanted was for us to remain trapped in a hole that was growing ever deeper. Not just to accept it – but to want it – because what I really want is God, and for God to draw my soul nearer to him. If the best way to do that is by this or that grim trial, then I can know that what I am getting is precisely what I really wanted all along.
In that moment, I understood. For my first Lent, I had to give up myself.
After that, I was ready for Easter. I talk about that a lot more in my Reflection After the Easter Vigil.
And in a truly poetic turn, Mark got that job. Our job search and our church transition came to completion at about the same time, around that Easter of 2016.
I haven’t fully worked out yet how we will observe Lent 2017, but I will always remember my first Lent. The spirit of that season, of laying down our wordly loads and loves, and turning our hearts and lives toward the cross, dwells in the Church and in the lives of her people, of which I am privileged to be a part.
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