I first became interested in Catholicism during Lent. And so, when this season comes around each year, it brings me back to that initial thrill of falling in love, a lot like the memory of a brand new romance.
The same old world is a different place when we are in love: ordinary colors are blazing, rain is wetter, music is deeper, even the simplest foods are richer. I’ve only felt this twice in my life: the first time was when I was still a child and I fell in love with the 12 year old boy who would become my husband 11 years later. To this day, Christmas lights with their warm sparkle remind me of that moment when I learned that Tim loved me back. It was a feeling of pure shock – someone was actually in love with my chubby, braces and glasses-wearing self! Christmas will forever be the backdrop for that memory; in a more particular way, that first love magic is tangled up with the glowing, eggy, multi-colored Christmas bulbs we had when I was a kid. (As if Christmas lights aren’t wonderful enough already.)
Its the same with Lent: the signs of this season are imprinted on me, triggering that looking-forward-to-everything/want-for-nothing feeling that I had back in 2014/2015. Its definitely a bit odd to write about how Lent, a barren and penitential liturgical landscape, reminds me of meeting a new lover. But flirting is the best word for what I was doing at that time. It was during Lent that I first encountered this spiritual tradition that didn’t seem right for me in any way, which was indeed entirely off limits to me based on the worldview that I held at that time. But love and mystery hold hands: we see this again and again, and if you have never seen it, I’m not sure you and I are inhabiting the same planet. People fall in love not from place of reason. They just fall. And so, despite all of my very solid reasons for refusing Catholicism, throwing the ring in the fire and changing my telephone number, I entered the Church about two, maybe three years after we met.
Lent is incredibly special to me because it was the temporal setting for that initial spiritual affair, but also because it is completely, utterly, delightfully absent from the shelves at Target.
Christmas and Easter are fantastic feasts. They are everywhere: almost inescapable, often irresistible. Back when I was into practicing an explicitly anti-Christian form of paganism, I could never quite let go. Even the atheists have to begrudginly say “I wish I could quit you!” to these jubilant holidays, like the late Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain.
Lent and Advent, on the other hand, are darker, shrouded, even a bit strange, and therefore these penitential seasons have yet to be diluted and hyper-commercialized by the culture. And oh, how I love it. I love it that Catholic year has these periods of quiet, even sorrowful darkness (Lent, Advent) leading us towards explosive light (Easter, Christmas). I had no interest in Christianity whatsoever until I was drawn in by these words: suffering, mystery, sacrifice. For me, Christianity doesn’t quite work without these terms; it becomes hokey and bland. The theology of suffering, namely the assertion that deep suffering has purpose and meaning beyond our wormy comprehension of it, is probably one of the most important points of my conversion.
Back to Lent: it isn’t white lilies. It isn’t pastels. St. John of the Cross wrote that “the endurance of darkness is the preparation for great light.” We endure Lent in a similar way, knowing that it leads to a gruesome event that conjures up the very human, unavoidable feelings of doubt and fear.
I could (and definitely should) write a whole separate post about how Catholicism is creepy AF: there’s all this misunderstood penitential stuff, the grey corpse on the cross, the incorruptibles, possession, an exorcist in every diocese, demons, a dark lord night king that the faith just won’t drop from the theology, no matter how uncool it is to believe in a personified evil… I mean, damn, y’all.
I use to be repulsed by Christianity, because I saw it as a tradition that turned blindly from reason, from reality, and especially from darkness, from earthiness, from all the blood and the muck. That has not been my lived experience with Catholicism, not even remotely. I’ve been blown away by the salt of it, and by the total willingness to plunge headfirst into uncomfortable realities of existence.
Today is Ash Wednesday, and I gratefully sink into the season of the liturgical year that give us extra elbow room to wrestle our shadows. As the priest said in Mass this morning, even cars have their maintenance schedule, and Lent comes around each year to give us a reminder that we still need some work before we get to put on our white Easter gloves and drink a mimosa.
Joy is so marvelous, and believe me, I go all out, over-the-top with joy when the time is right. But in Lent we kneel in a desert that burns our knees. We acknowledge our many comforts and offer them up, in action and in prayer. To put it another way, I kneel at Mass, and even though I am only 30 years old, I find that the kneeling on the hard floors (there are no kneelers at the Church I currently attend) really kills my knees. Still, I sink into it. I stay with it: its a small suffering that reminds me that the world is full of bigger sufferings. By some mystery, ache becomes heartbreak and heartbreak becomes love. To put it even more clearly, I sink into pain and, in doing so, I somehow come through it. But any woman who has ever given birth already knows that story.
When Easter Sunday comes, we do the pastel thing and the drinking of mimosas and all of the refreshing, renewing, culturally-accepted springtime fertility symbols we see in the aisles at Target. But Lent is something else. It is a somber time that is magnificently uncomplicated: we offer sacrifice in small or big ways, we fast and cleanse in small or big ways, we give to others in small or big ways. I simply adore it, and its been such a gift to my spiritual health.