Can you have a “happy” Lent?

Can you have a “happy” Lent?

As I was wrapping up a Lenten retreat recently, someone in attendance approached me afterward and asked if it’s appropriate or even possible to wish someone “Happy Lent!” The funny thing is, I had said those exact words to Father Bob Longobucco as he walked into the church earlier that evening, even though it’s not something I would usually say seriously to anyone. But if you know Father Bob, you know a little levity is always allowed amid the spiritual seriousness.

But this person’s question made me take a closer look at the topic, and I promised I would ponder it and maybe even write about it. So here we are. What I said off the top of my head that Wednesday evening was that I think we hear “happy” with our secularized ears and what we really mean is “joyful.” But does “Have a joyful Lent” ring any truer in a season where sacrifice and the road to Calvary are in view?

I would offer a resounding YES! And here’s why. Look at some of the readings of this season so far. On Ash Wednesday, in the first reading from the Book of Joel, we were urged: “Return to me with your whole heart … return to the Lord, your God. For gracious and merciful is he, and slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment.” What could be more joyful than a God like that? So often we focus on what is wrong with us and how unworthy we think we are, but God reminds us that we are beloved exactly as we are right now. And that should make us both happy and joyful, no matter what the season.

Last week, one of the Gospel acclamations, quoted Psalm 51, saying: “A clean heart create for me, O God; give me back the joy of your salvation.” I used this exact line of Scripture as a breath prayer for my retreat group precisely because of the words “the joy of your salvation.” I wanted to remind people that ours is a faith of joy, even on the road to Calvary, because we know what lies beyond it.

Famed Trappist monk Thomas Merton, in his book “Seasons of Celebration: Meditations on the Cycle of the Liturgical Feasts,” wrote: “Even the darkest moments of the liturgy are filled with joy, and Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten fast, is a day of happiness, a Christian feast. It cannot be otherwise, as it forms part of the great Easter cycle.”

He goes on to say, “There is joy in the salutary fasting and abstinence of the Christian who eats and drinks less in order that his mind may be more clear and receptive to receive the sacred nourishment of God’s word, which the whole Church announces and meditates upon in each day’s liturgy throughout Lent.”

Notice the word he uses there: joy. For many of us, the word “happy” is where we get hung up, because happy in our secular world’s view is about those surface feelings we get when we go on vacation or get a promotion or eat a good meal. There is a big difference between happy and joyful, and we are called to be joyful in our faith, not just when things are going according to plan but even when they feel terribly off course, maybe especially in that case. No easy task, to be sure.

Even if you’re not comfortable wishing your neighbor at church a “happy” Lent, can you spend some time thinking about where the joy lives in this season?  When we discover the joy bubbling up amid the sacrifices we’re making, like a purple crocus pushing up from beneath the snow in our yard, we begin to realize that there is far more to this season than what we see on the surface.

Happy, joyful, blessed Lent!

Mary DeTurris Poust will be offering a Lenten retreat at St. Patrick’s Church in Ravena on Saturday, March 11, at 10 a.m. and via Zoom on Wednesday, March 15, at 7 p.m. For more information, visit:

Photo by Mohamed Nohassi on Unsplash

Moving from darkness into light

Moving from darkness into light

I recently did a search of my past Life Lines columns to find something I wrote here six years ago: “Sometimes happiness isn’t a choice.” I remembered how deep and dark that feeling had been when I penned those lines, and I wanted to see what I was thinking. My search was prompted by a book I had just finished on Audible, The Untethered Soul: The Journey beyond Yourself, by Michael A. Singer. In that book, the author says again and again that happiness is, in fact, a choice. Our choice. Every day.

Although there were times throughout the book when I talked back to the narrator, disagreeing with this or that, I was surprised to see how much of it resonated with me and how much had changed since 2016 when I referred to myself (and others like me) as “darkness-dwellers” who drain the life out of everything, like the soul-sucking “dementors” from the Harry Potter series. That was some serious darkness. It’s not hard for me to tap into where I was, but to be honest, that definition of myself feels somewhat foreign — and more than a little sad and frightening.

When I found the column, I found something else: a long comment left by Jack, a complete stranger who had the guts to disagree with me and remind me that “the stuff about ‘darkness-dwellers’ and being soul/energy sucking vampires has nothing do with God or the Divine, but with ‘something else’ that is not so nice.”

“It is a choice of happiness, of going down the spiritual path where the roadside is littered with baggage, garbage, and tears…and to keep moving forward to God’s Love and Light,” he wrote. I smiled as I read those words six years later and marveled at where I am now and how far away that unhappy place seems.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m still not all sunshine and roses every day, but there is a difference. The darkness which arrives on my doorstep — as it does for each one of us in different measures — does not cling to me anymore, at least not for long. The light is always there, edging its way in and reminding me that, while I may not be happy all the time, I can know joy in my heart no matter what.

Happiness and joy are two different things. We say we want to be happy, but what we really want is a pervading joy that stays with us, even when times are downright disastrous. Will we be happy in those painful moments? Probably not, no matter how far down the spiritual path we have gone. But can we know the abiding joy that lives within us because we are called, chosen, saved, and beloved by God? Yes.

What changed for me over the past few years that could transform a darkness dweller into a joy seeker? A lot. No one thing made all the difference, but I can look at the choices I made that allowed me to loosen my own vise grip on my heart so that it could open enough to let God do what God wanted to do for and with me.

My path has included talk therapy, medication (which changed and possibly saved my life), meditation and yoga, regular retreats, a daily gratitude practice (which also changed and possibly saved my life as much as anti-depressants), and a growing wisdom that has come with the last third of life and has made me realize how precious every day is. We do not have time to waste. We know not the day nor the hour.

If you are in darkness, if you feel like you cannot “choose” happiness, reach out to those who can guide you out of that place. You deserve joy. You deserve light. You are called, chosen, saved, and beloved. Own it. Live it.

This column originally appeared in the May 5, 2022, editions of Catholic New York and The Evangelist.

Sometimes happiness isn’t a choice.

Sometimes happiness isn’t a choice.

My Life Lines column, running in the current issue of Catholic New York:

My hands look older than my mother’s hands ever did. That’s what I was thinking at Mass last Sunday when I should have been focused on more spiritual pursuits. But I couldn’t get past the sudden, albeit not surprising, realization that I am aging far beyond anything my mother experienced in her 47 years. Thanks to a couple of small-but-disturbing age spots and prominent veins, my hands remind me that life is moving at breakneck speed and I might want to take stock of things. (more…)

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