Back when I was younger, I would approach Ash Wednesday in spiritual attack mode. Armed with books and an overly ambitious plan, I entered the Lenten season like a tourist set on seeing every attraction in a city while missing out on the true charm of a place. By the second or third week of Lent, I’d find myself deflated and disappointed, wondering how I ended up so far from my original destination.
One of the benefits of aging, however, has been a softer and gentler approach to this challenging season. I’ve become more realistic about what I might accomplish during Lent, or any other day of my life. I know how easy it is to set overwhelming goals — spiritual or otherwise — and give up in frustration before any new habits have taken root. So, this year, as we prepare to begin our 40-day journey through the desert toward resurrection, I’m packing light. Yes, I still have plans but those lean more toward the possible, maybe even probable, rather than the impossible.
It’s good to remember as we begin this journey that it’s okay if it’s not always a direct route from Point A to Point B. We are human, after all, and although we sometimes don’t seem to grasp that, God does. There will be days when we feel as though we’re not making any spiritual “progress,” and other times when we seem to be slipping farther and farther from our goal. Fortunately for us, God is kind and merciful. And patient beyond measure.
So, take a deep breath and just begin. Right where you are. If you stumble along the way, dust yourself off and begin again. Transformation doesn’t come in an instant or all at once. It comes bit by bit and with daily effort. It also comes only with a willingness to let go of our need to control where this season will take us. We often want a transformation of our own making, rather than accepting the version God has planned for us. What if we loosened our grip on the reins and let God set the course?
Pope Francis says, “Lent comes providentially to reawaken us, to shake us from our lethargy.” Let’s take a moment and contemplate what needs to be reawakened in us, what needs a little shaking up. To keep us steady and on track, we can stake out a dwelling place — even if only for a few minutes each day — in the heart of Scripture, where we will find guideposts and markers to move us along.
We start each Lent with the stark reminder that we are dust and to dust we will return. Even if we get the more contemporary refrain — Repent and believe in the Gospel — that smudge of ash from last year’s burned palms is reminder enough of our temporary status on this planet. It’s such a beautiful way to begin, stripping it all down to the basics. We are here, but not for long. What do we plan to do with the brief time we have? How will God figure into those plans?
The poet Mary Oliver, in her poem “When Death Comes,” writes:
“When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”
Perhaps we can take Oliver’s words to heart as we head into Lent, planning not to tackle an unrealistic list of things to do and sights to see but instead fostering a desire to slow down and make something “particular and real” of a season that offers us time apart to move closer to who and what God has called us to be.
I’ll be offering several Lenten retreats in the weeks ahead: Thursday, March 2, 6:30 p.m. at St. Kateri Tekakwitha in Niskayuna, NY; Saturday, March 11, 10 a.m. at St. Patrick’s in Ravena, NY; and Wednesday, March 15, 7 p.m. via Zoom. For more information, click HERE.