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I don’t know about you, but I don’t like desert living. I especially find it difficult when it comes upon me while I am still enjoying the festivities that came with Christmas.
It’s too soon to plunge into Lenten living. It’s too hard to let myself be led by God’s spirit into the aridity of desert life. I want to cry out, “Wait a minute! I’m not ready yet. Give me more time to acclimate, adjust, and accept this new lifestyle.” I guess I never really got the Christmas message, after all. Incarnation is not for sissies.
When I was a young child, I understood the hungers of Lenten living as a list of things I would give up. There’d be no candy, especially chocolate. I’d relinquish second helpings. As I grew older, the list grew with me. It began to include things I would do. I’d pray more, go to church more often, and do voluntarily what would normally require lots of badgering and reminding.
Since I attended parochial school, there was no dearth of opportunities for such holiness. There were also the requisite “spiritual bouquets.” These were our version of Holy cards or prayer cards. They contained the record of our Lenten promises to be given to our parents as an Easter gift. The checklist was an obvious recall of our 40 days in desert land.
The spirit that filled our solemn souls in those days was more likely to be one of self-gratification than of being led by God. We were more apt to congratulate ourselves on tasks completed than on a new lifestyle to be lived. Our 40 days of deprivation, denial, and duty would end in one glorious return to life as usual.
But, I am older now...much older. What does Lent mean to me today? How do I view desert times now? Do I really believe God’s spirit is leading me into deprivation and denial? If so, how is this emptiness effective? Is it bringing me closer to God, closer to a realization it is God alone whom I worship, God alone whom I serve?
My head has a ready and positive response. My heart concurs. My gut, the innards of my being, takes longer. It will take all of 40 days for me to enter the reality of Lent—and a whole lifetime to integrate it into my personhood.
I’ll need to understand my hungers before I can discover what feeds them as well as what must be denied so that they’ll diminish. My childhood declining of candy must become an adult understanding. I must investigate those persons, places and events that provide a saccharine experience causing me to miss the authentic sweetness of God’s word in the world.
I’ll need to discern what it means not to live on bread alone. I’ll have to examine what bread has been sustaining me. Has it been the bread of popularity and prestige? Have I been unduly affirmed and upheld by affirmation and acclaim? What is feeding me and why?
If Lent is anything, it is the opportunity to live as an alien in this world. It is to live unashamedly and unconditionally according to God’s word.
Strength to do so will come without measure from God. For God does hear the cry of the poor. God sees our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. God does not lead us into this desert without plan or purpose. God leads us there so that we might discover for ourselves the graces we have been given. We will uncover the power of divinity that is within us.
From the time we were toddlers, our cry to unveil that strength has been voiced. We said it when we shouted, “Me do it!” But, we learned what it really meant when we whispered to God, “Not my will but yours be done.” We trusted its potency when we believed that nothing is impossible with God. We uncovered the prize of God’s presence when we brought back to God the gifts given to us, setting them down and bowing graciously in God’s presence.
Lent is a desert experience. It is a land of exile. It is not an easy time, a cheap grace. It is a time to learn how to believe in our hearts, not just to express faith with our lips. It is our annual chance to enter prayerful solitude. It involves giving ourselves to God and allowing God to continue giving divinity to us. Lent means plumbing the depths of personhood. It means discovering our best self, our true self.
Nothing is to be left out or hidden from sights. God awaits the heaviness we have been carrying—a life-basket brimful of joys and sorrows, anxieties and expectations, fears and worries, afflictions and oppressions. For God, Lent is not about giving up or giving in. It is about giving to.
So, my desert time as a child was not wasteful or wrong. It was not a time to be forgotten, displaced or rejected. The Lent of my childhood was a prelude to my adult experience. It can be repeated, but with a sense of renewal, a sense that my former giving up for God can now be a new giving to God. Today, my spiritual bouquets can be occasions of grace shared with others. Rather than awaiting the end of deprivation, I can awaken to the joy of each day, viewing each moment as a gift of milk and honey, a promised land of goodness to be savored and shared as blessing.
Jesus was sorely tempted in the desert. So will we. Jesus received strength and stamina in the desert. So will we. Jesus faced the Tempter in the desert and did not give up or give in. So will we. He endured the pain of hunger. He fought the human desire for prestige. He was tested with the desire to escape all hardship. Jesus won the battle of temptation because he believed with all his being that he was not alone in that death-dealing dryness. We, too, can endure, fight, be tested, and win—if we believe that God is with us when we are in trouble.
But, we’ll not return to life as usual. Lent, like Incarnation, is not for sissies.
Fran Salone-Pelletier has a master’s degree in theology and is the author of “Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives” [a trilogy of Scriptural meditations], lead chaplain at Brunswick Community Hospital, religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer and grandmother of four.