(2/22/12: Updated once again: New pictures of the lamb, sacrifice jar, and my crown of thorns.)
As I did at Advent, I've compiled all of last year's posts about the upcoming liturgical season into one, long, wordy post, and here it is. The title of the series, "A Meaningful Lent," comes from then-six-year-old Ramona's protest that she would not give up something such as talking back to her sisters, but rather, she planned to give up something meaningful.
So, here goes. Our attempts at meaning follow.
Part 1. A Meaningful Lent
The other day, Ramona told Betsy that instead of giving up sassiness, she was going to give up something meaningful.
But what does "meaningful" mean, and how do we enter into into Lent in a way that will really make it meaningful?
I start by asking, "What to Give Up?"
We sometimes hear this debate: Should we give up something "good" or something "bad"?
I see no reason to debate. All we have to figure out is the answer to this question: "What will help me grow closer to God?"
On the "good" side of the debate are those who say we must give up "a good" or it's not a sacrifice (a sacrifice being the giving up of an objective good for a greater good.)
On the "bad" side, are those who say that giving up "something bad" (a bad habit, such as complaining, smoking, caffeine) is just as difficult as giving up something good, and therefore, is a great spiritual exercise.
I hereby declare a draw. Both sides are right.
The key is in our perception: if it's a struggle to give it up, we're inordinately attached to it.
When we give up an addiction, we say to God, "You are more important to me than this thing. I'm giving it up for You."
It's the act of love that counts, but our acts of love often lead to real and positive change. When we offer an addiction for God, we find Him working on our hearts, ridding us of painful, controlling attachments.
In that sense, it's certainly an acceptable Lenten sacrifice to give up "something bad."
On the flip side, when we give up something that is objectively good, we get the joy of that thing's return on Easter Sunday. And this is a beautiful thing to experience. We see, in a small but concrete way, that sacrifice leads to Resurrection. ("Break out the chocolate bunnies! He is Risen!")
There's still a bit of room for debate: is chocolate an objective good or an unhealthy addiction? (Umm, okay ... so that's not up for debate. God invented the objective good of chocolate right after Adam, Eve and the amazing way we love our children. They don't call chocolate the food of the gods for nothing.) What about moderate alcohol use? Blogging, Facebook, Twitter? Meat every day? Dessert every night? TV? Movies? Music?
There's often some overlap. I have to ask myself, "Am I addicted to what would, in moderation, be an objective good?" Perhaps, when Easter arrives, I'll find that God has helped me to let go of the attachment, and enjoy the thing as it's intended to be enjoyed.
That overlap is the reason it can be helpful to choose several things to give up -- something in the "bad" category ("God, help me get rid of this vice forever!") and something in the "good" category ("Grill a steak! Pass the wine! Celebrate the Feast!")
It's all so personal. What's easily managed for one person might be a torturous attachment for another.
That's why we really shouldn't debate about the "right things" to give up for Lent.
If giving it up will help you grow closer to God, then it's the right thing.
Various things I've given up in the past that have been spiritually fruitful for me: meat on all days of Lent, wine, the radio, the wearing of any jewelry, all sweets, chocolate, complaining.
ETA, 2/15/10: One year I gave up all purchases that were not a necessity. I got the idea from Jenn at As Cozy as Spring -- great idea -- and was reminded of it in today's comment from Emily at Journeys of a Catholic Poster Girl.
Part 2. Why Give Up Anything?
The short answer is, "Because Mom said so."
Mom -- Mother Church -- knows what's best for us. And when we follow her advice, we find that, even if we didn't initially understand the reason, our actions bear good fruit.
But, we always want the long answer, don't we?
First, occasionally people say, "You don't have to give anything up -- just take on something positive." I have a couple of thoughts about this perspective. While I understand the good intention behind the "positive spin" (that instead of giving up candy or some other trifle which can seem meaningless one is trying to do something of more"importance") I think it overlooks the good that is inherent in fasting.
I also want to point out that in "taking something on" we are making a sacrifice. If we sacrifice leisure time in order to do something else -- read more Scripture, pray at an abortion clinic, volunteer at a food pantry, or do something else that is a good -- then that is certainly a sacrifice offered in the spirit of Lent. Scripture reading, prayer, talking with a frightened woman who is tempted to abort her child, helping to feed the hungry -- these are corporal and spiritual works of mercy that yield real results, both seen and unseen.
Additionally, on the subject of results we can see, here's a small, but concrete benefit of a fast: if we save the money we would have spent on the trifles (how much is a bag of M&Ms? What's the beer budget? The cost of meat for forty days?) and donate it, we see the results of our sacrifice. Our children see it. The trifles suddenly don't seem to be such a trifle when we realize how much we normally spend on them.
But, second, why do we feel the need to put a "positive" spin on something that is already positive? For a Christian, isn't sacrifice always a positive? If what Jesus did for us isn't the ultimate positive example, then I've got the wrong religion.
Sometimes, we're looking for loopholes and an easier road. But, there's no easy road to avoiding sin. It's an uphill battle for us, this fallen lot. So, let's listen to Mom and give Lent the spin it deserves.
We now return to our regularly scheduled post.
I never say anything better than the Catechism of the Catholic Church does, so I'll direct you to a couple of passages that discuss sacrifice, mortification and spiritual progress.
The way of perfection passes by way of the Cross. There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle.
It remains for the holy people to struggle, with grace from on high, to obtain the good things God promises. In order to possess and contemplate God, Christ's faithful mortify their cravings and, with the grace of God, prevail over the seductions of pleasure and power.And, from Scripture:
"Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." -- Matthew 6:21
During Lent, we are called to "pray, fast and give." (See this document for more info.) In taking on additional prayer time, or attending daily Mass more often, or praying the Stations of the Cross, or other devotions such as the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, in fasting from festive food and drink, or from various entertainments or areas of excess, and in freely giving of our time and money, we see that it's not a matter of "either/or." We don't ask, "Should I pray more? Or should I fast from something? Or should I give of my time? Give away a few more dollars?"
To pray, to fast and to give are all intimately connected. Progress and growth in one area fuels further progress in the others.
This trinity is the foundation of a meaningful Lent. When I start there, good things happen.
Part 3. Fasting and the Holy Father
Message of His Holiness Benedict XVI for Lent, 2009:
(Found in its entirety here.)
For this year’s Lenten Message, I wish to focus my reflections especially on the value and meaning of fasting.**********
...We might wonder what value and meaning there is for us Christians in depriving ourselves of something that in itself is good and useful for our bodily sustenance. The Sacred Scriptures and the entire Christian tradition teach that fasting is a great help to avoid sin and all that leads to it. For this reason, the history of salvation is replete with occasions that invite fasting.
...In the New Testament, Jesus brings to light the profound motive for fasting, condemning the attitude of the Pharisees, who scrupulously observed the prescriptions of the law, but whose hearts were far from God. True fasting, as the divine Master repeats elsewhere, is rather to do the will of the Heavenly Father, who “sees in secret, and will reward you” (Mt 6,18). He Himself sets the example, answering Satan, at the end of the forty days spent in the desert that “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Mt 4,4). The true fast is thus directed to eating the “true food,” which is to do the Father’s will (cf. Jn 4,34).
...In our own day, fasting seems to have lost something of its spiritual meaning, and has taken on, in a culture characterized by the search for material well-being, a therapeutic value for the care of one’s body. Fasting certainly bring benefits to physical well-being, but for believers, it is, in the first place, a “therapy” to heal all that prevents them from conformity to the will of God.
...The faithful practice of fasting contributes, moreover, to conferring unity to the whole person, body and soul, helping to avoid sin and grow in intimacy with the Lord.
...At the same time, fasting is an aid to open our eyes to the situation in which so many of our brothers and sisters live. In his First Letter, Saint John admonishes: “If anyone has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, yet shuts up his bowels of compassion from him – how does the love of God abide in him?” (3,17).
...Dear brothers and sisters, it is good to see how the ultimate goal of fasting is to help each one of us, as the Servant of God Pope John Paul II wrote, to make the complete gift of self to God (cf. Encyclical Veritatis splendor, 21).
As Lent approaches and we consider giving up the foods and other things we enjoy, we sometimes feel overwhelmed.
It's helpful to me (a rich American, despite my protests about the cost of the latest van repair) to consider that the things overwhelming me could be foundational:
-- In 2008, the number of undernourished people in the world rose to 963 million
-- Hunger and malnutrition are the No. 1 risk to health worldwide, greater than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined.
-- The total food surplus of the United States alone could satisfy every empty stomach in Africa; France's leftovers could feed the hungry in Democratic Republic of Congo and Italy's could feed Ethiopia's undernourished.
-- Today 25,000 people will die from hunger. A child dies every six seconds of malnutrition or starvation.
More information from:
Catholic Relief Services
CRS and Operation Rice Bowl
Kids Against Hunger
The Hunger Site
Fasting Against Global Hunger
Pope Benedict XVI on hunger, here and here.
And the king will say to them in reply, 'Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for Me.'
-- Matthew 25:40
A reminder from Mom:
If you are a pregnant or nursing mother, or are ill, Mom (Holy Mother Church, not me) doesn't want you to fast from nutritious meals. There are myriad ways to fast.
Take care of your physical health, and offer the things from which you must fast (sleep, time, favorite foods that affect breast milk, sanity) as your prayer and your offering. Mom knows your situation, and she not only understands, she insists that you take care of yourself so that you may take care of the gift you've been given.
Part 4: Lent with Young Children
Some of our favorite things:
The Lamb of God Calendar
On poster board, draw a picture of a lamb. (I originally drew a pattern freehand, based on this one, and now use the pattern to trace a new one each year. This year [2012 update] Ramona colored and added a bell.
Divide the body into squares to make a calendar, covering the entire period of Lent.
Every day, Ramona glues a cottonball on that day’s space. This is such a great way for little ones to count down to Easter and it gives them a concrete picture of the length of the season of waiting. When Easter arrives, we replace the little Lenten notes (click on the picture for a larger version -- you'll see the notes, which say things like, "Pray ... fast ... give ... Love") with big, colorful "Alleluia!" notes. We've been doing this one since Anne-with-an-e was little, and all of my girls have loved this activity.
(In an effort to give credit where credit is due, I have to say that the credit for this goes to someone else -- I just wish I knew who! I saw a very similar idea in a little newsletter years ago. They suggested gluing cotton balls on a paper plate lamb, but I made a wall calendar instead. So, whoever you are ... you inspired this wall calendar, and we thank you!)
There are different versions of this all over the place, but here's what we do: We place an empty jar next to a bowl of dried beans. For every sacrifice, prayer, act of kindness or penance performed, a bean goes into the jar.
On Easter morning, the beans will be replaced with jelly beans and M&Ms, reminding us that the rewards of Heaven will be sweet! And, please note: the M &Ms will be overflowing, even if the jar did not get filled. God's grace is like that, no?
This idea is from my dear friend, Holly, godmother to all of my children.
Cut out 1/4 of a cardboard egg carton and paint it for the caterpillar's body. Glue on "googly eyes" (or paint them on) and use pipe cleaners for antennae and legs (or toothpicks and tiny pom-poms.) When Holy Week arrives, wrap your caterpillars in paper or coffee filters (their cocoons.) On Holy Saturday night (after kids are in bed) tear open the cocoon and replace it with a butterfly.
The butterfly will depend on the artistic skills -- or lack thereof -- of Mom and/or Dad. Our butterflies have ranged from drawings, to origami, to a picture from the internet (that was a hectic year) to fun foam and sequins. Add to the symbolism of rebirth with a note proclaiming, “Jesus gives us New Life! Alleluia!”
*Homemade Soft Pretzels
1 1/2 c. warm water
1 pkg. yeast
1 tsp. salt
1 tbsp. sugar
4 c. flour
1 beaten egg
Measure warm water into large (warm) mixing bowl. Sprinkle on yeast and stir until it looks soft. Add salt, sugar and flour. Mix/knead dough. Shape dough into the usual (or your own special) pretzel shapes.
Grease cookie sheets and lay pretzels on them and brush with beaten egg. Sprinkle with coarse salt. Bake at 425 degrees for 12-15 minutes.
I always choose a new prayer for us to learn during Lent. We say it nightly, at bedtime prayers, and memorize painlessly. (We do this at other times of the year, too, as a way for all of us to learn various prayers.)
Part 5: Confession and Dorothy Parker
In this post, I want to share my three best tips for a meaningful Lent.
1. Go to confession.
2. Go to confession.
3. Go to confession.
And, if I haven't mentioned it lately, I also think going to confession would be a good thing to do.
If you love going to confession, good for you. Keep it up.
If you hate going to confession, consider giving up "not going to confession" for Lent.
If you hate to go, but love having gone, you may be a Dorothy Parker fan. (Of her profession, she said, "Hate to write ... love having written.")
I am a Dorothy Parker sort of confessee. Hate to go. Love having gone. Love going regularly, even though I hate going. (And, although it has no place in this post, I'll share another Dorothy Parker quote: "This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force." Love that, although it's completely out of place here.)
And, finally, one more Dorothy Parker quote that does have a place here:
“It's not the tragedies that kill us, it's the messes.”
Confess the mess.
And, that's the last of Dorothy Parker I can share. If I repeat her most famous stuff, I'll have to head straight to confession.
Part 6: His Lent and My Lent
It never fails.
I always make plans for Lent. Plenty o' plans.
But, God always has His own plans for my Lent.
Just a friendly, neighborhood reminder: if your Lent doesn't turn out to be what you envisioned, keep in mind that it's because we aren't really in charge. We never are.
If He hands you a different Lent from the one you planned, be assured that it is truly from His Hand, and tell Him, simply, "Thank You."
Part 7: My Crown of Thorns
When I was received into the Catholic Church fourteen years ago, my dear friend Jack gave me an incredible gift: a crown of thorns.
This is not a miniature replica, nor a harmless likeness. It is a real, piercing, terrible, beautiful crown of thorns.
Every year, during Lent, it is prominently displayed in our home. It does wonders for my tiny Lenten sacrifices. A brief, but penetrating gaze upon the thorns penetrates my thoughts, my soul, my desires. It keeps my little offerings in perspective.
The sight of the crown that our King endured keeps me close in thought to Him, the Man Who gave everything for me, the One Who loves me no matter how weak I am, or how petty or selfish. No matter how much I may stray or grow lukewarm, He is there. He is faithful, waiting for the one He loves to return that love and fidelity. All. The. Time.
And that's what Lent is, for me ... a rekindling of the greatest love affair of my life. And, when I am tempted to think that my little Lenten sacrifices are too much, or too hard, I gaze upon that crown of thorns.
And I know that nothing is too much. He showed us what it means to give everything. The least I can do is feel the sting of my small sacrifices.
Places to find a crown of thorns:
Holy Land Imports
Jerusalem Export House
Part 8: Lent with a Sensitive Child
When Anne-with-an-e was much younger, she was very sensitive. A picture of Jesus on the Cross could reduce her to tears. Singing certain hymns would leave her spent. The idea of forty days of sorrowful mysteries drained her. I sometimes wondered how someone so little could feel things so deeply.
Lent became a difficult time.
I, being an enthusiastic convert, looked forward to doing everything I could during Lent to challenge myself. But, I realized that my vision of Lent and the Lent I needed to provide for my tenderhearted daughter were two different things.
In a way, it was humbling to create a "more relaxed Lent," if I can call it that, than I had previously practiced, but that's what I needed to do. I pulled back, I stopped trying to do things such as Stations of the Cross for children. Anne just couldn't take it; it broke her heart.
One might argue that our Lord's crucifixion is supposed to break our hearts. Yes, it is. It does. But, a soul in formation has to be handled with the utmost care, and I knew that forcing certain practices on this child would not help her to love God more, and it may even have the opposite effect. Clearly, that was not my vision for teaching my child about how fabulous Jesus was.
All of the usual "Lent with Children" practices were good: baking pretzels, putting cottonballs on the Lamb, putting beans in the sacrifice jar for kindnesses and unselfish actions. But anything too raw, too harsh, too weepy, was just too painful. (And remember, Holy Mother Church doesn't technically require our children to abstain from meat on Fridays and fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday until they are fourteen years old.)
As Anne grew, our practices slowly grew and changed, too. Things that were once too hard are handled now, and I see an extremely sensitive child growing into a beautifully sensitive and perceptive young lady. Now in her teens, Anne chose her own penance for this Lent (and it's something she really loves, so I do believe she's challenging herself) and she also chose to take on a devotion that I hadn't even suggested.
I don't mean to suggest that Lent should be watered down. I offer all of this only to help anyone out there who has found that Lent is "just too much" for their sensitive child. You're not alone, and I can almost assure you that "pulling back" or "taking it easy" or tailoring Lenten practices to make them work for your particular child in your particular situation is not necessarily a compromise. In your case, it's sensitive parenting, and it can bear lovely fruit.
And, the beauty of the Catholic Church's teaching (that the parent is the first educator in a child's life) means that we can and should make careful, prudent decisions about these sorts of things.
Every house, every child, every soul is different.
So is every Lent.
At least, that's been the experience at our house.
"In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity."
(Thanks, Fr. H., for tracking down the origin of that expression.)
Part 9: Halfway Through the Desert
We've been trudging through the desert for three weeks, but who's counting?
At more than halfway to Easter, it's a good time for some assesment.
Am I aching for the things I gave up? Good. That means I'm too attached, and I'm forcing myself to turn to God for strength, comfort and immediate gratification, rather than to created goods.
Am I barely feeling my sacrifices? Hmmm. Maybe I should add something new to the mix. One year I gave up complaining, which is always guaranteed to offer renewed humility and gratitude.
Some places to visit to gather strength for the rest of the journey:
Pope Benedict's Message for Lent this year
Just in case you haven't read it yet
These Forty Days
A lovely and inspiring blog, put together by Nissa Gadbois.
Loads of links here
Lent: Call to Conversion
Our Sunday Visitor
Guide to Lent
Faith and Family Live's Lenten page
Part 10: Solemnity of St. Joseph
An oasis in the desert.
A Solemnity (read: "It's as big as a Sunday!")
Celebrate today the earthly foster father of Jesus.
I find nothing sweeter to my imagination than to see the celestial little Jesus in the arms of this great saint, calling him father a thousand and a thousand times in his childlike language, and with a heart all full of childlike love.
~~ St. Francis de Sales,
from The Mystical Flora of St. Francis de Sales
Though we have always celebrated St. Joseph's day (by "always" I really mean, "Since I became Catholic," and "I'll jump on any legitimate feast day,") I've not paid much attention to the Italian traditions that go hand-in-hand with this Solemnity. But, one of the priests in our parish grew up with Sicilian traditions, and he's been sharing them with us, inspiring me to do more with St. Joseph's day than to simply feast on the things from which I've been fasting.
On a more serious note, I always say prayers of thanksgiving on this day for the intercession of St. Joseph, which has been an enormous blessing for our family.
I believe he prayed for us through Atticus's conversion, through miscarriages, through doubts and fears about more miscarriages (which can lead to fears of being open to life) and for the spiritual growth of our domestic church.
My beloved St. Joseph is the model husband and father ... giving of himself completely, pouring himself out in body and spirit, offering a total self-donation for his wife and foster-son. May he hear our prayers and cries for intercession, and may he intercede before the throne of God for our family, for all fathers, and for all who call on him with love and faith in the Savior whom he raised, and especially today for many fathers who are seeking work in these difficult economic times.
One of my favorite prayers for the intercession of St. Joseph:
Oh, Saint Joseph, whose protection is so great,
so strong, so prompt, before the Throne of God,
I place before you, all my interest and desires.
Oh, Saint Joseph, do assist me by your powerful
intercession and obtain for me from your Divine Son,
all spiritual blessings, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
So having engaged here below your heavenly power,
I may offer my thanksgiving and homage to the most
loving of Fathers.
Oh, Saint Joseph, I never weary contemplating you,
and Jesus asleep in your arms; I dare not approach
while he reposes near your heart. Press Him in my
name and kiss His fine head for me and ask Him
to return the Kiss when I draw my dying breath.
Saint Joseph, Patron of departing souls --
Pray for us.
(Image above is Georges de La Tour's "Christ in the Carpenter's Shop", 1645)
Part 11: Solemnity of the Annunciation
Another Solemnity to celebrate!
We interrupt this Lent to bring you glad tidings of great joy.
I love this sane and balanced attitude of Mother Church. Although we are exhorted to sacrifice during Lent, "Mom" never lets us forget that our Lord is risen indeed, and even during a season of penance and self-examination, there are days on which we are fairly commanded to celebrate. Being an obedient Catholic, that is exactly what I will do.
A couple of other ideas to consider:
Read these beautiful words from St. Bernard, "Arise, hasten, open."
Consider doing a spiritual adoption of a child conceived at this time of year, and in danger of abortion. No, you don't know the child's name, but that child is out there. (It was my friend Andrea who first introduced this idea to me when I was a new Catholic.) Then, pray for that child through the nine months from today until Christmas day (don't forget to point out to your children that the Annunciation is celebrated exactly nine months before Christmas.) At Christmas time, donate baby items to a crisis pregnancy center (some parishes do spiritual adoptions as parish-wide prayer project, holding a "baby shower" during Advent to collect needed items for donation.)
Or, consider "adopting" a child through a child-sponsorship program, such as this excellent Catholic organization: The Christian Foundation for Children and Aging, through which individuals and families can sponsor children, the elderly or a religious vocation candidate.
However we observe and celebrate this feast, I pray to remember the lesson that is at its core: Mary's fiat ... her "yes" to the Lord.
Where am I withholding my fiat? Is there something I need to say "yes" to that I'm resisting? If so, I pray that the Lord will grant me to grace to say, with Mary, "Let it be done to me according to Thy Word."
(The painting is "The Annunciation" by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1859-1937. There are so many incredible, beautiful pieces of art from which to choose for the Annunciation -- just Google "Annunciation" under "images" -- but I love the portrayal of the angel in this one, as something that is beyond our vision and comprehension.)
Part 12: Avoiding God's Gaze
During Lent, and especially during Holy Week, Atticus and I frequently recall the gifts and graces that led to our conversions as we examine the ongoing conversion that is known as "life." This post is from last year:
That very day, the first day of the week, two of Jesus’ disciples were going to a village seven miles from Jerusalem called Emmaus ~~ Luke 24:13
A year or two before Atticus came into the Church, I was at Mass one Sunday and heard this Gospel reading. I stayed after to pray that day, and I poured my hurting heart out to God:
"When will he be open, Lord? When?"
I prayed a bit more, and cried a little bit, then sat and tried to listen. What happened next was not something I heard, but something I saw and felt inside:
And it happened that while they were conversing and debating, Jesus himself drew near and walked with them, but their eyes were prevented from recognizing him. ~~ Lk 24:15-16
I had an image of Atticus ... Jesus was holding onto him, His hands on Atticus' shoulders, trying to catch his eye. Atticus looked away: right, left, anywhere but straight ahead, into the Eyes of Jesus. He was avoiding God's gaze. I knew that trick; I had done it myself.
And then I knew the answer to "when."
It was only a matter of time.
Jesus was that close to my husband. And it was only a matter of time before Atticus stopped looking away, could no longer avoid Him, would look up and gaze straight ahead, into the eyes he would recognize as those of his Lord. Their eyes would lock, and that would be it.
My tension slipped away. It might be months. It might be years. But Jesus had His hands on Atticus. I knew it in my heart and in my gut.
Sometime after that, I don't really remember the exact timing, Atticus did indeed surrender and looked straight into the eyes of God.
And it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him
~~ Luke 24:30-31
When Atticus received his first Holy Communion, he recognized his life and God's claim on it in a new way. I remember marveling at all that he felt and sensed that Easter Vigil night, at all that we discussed. He knew what he was leaving behind and he knew -- as much as any of us can "know" -- what he was gaining.
Then the two recounted what had taken place on the way and how he was made known to them in the breaking of bread.
~~ Luke 24:35
We recount what has taken place, and how He was made known to us in the breaking of the bread.
And our marveling continues.
(Painting: Christ on the Road to Emmaus, Roelant Roghman, 17th c.)
Part 13: A Collection of Reminders
A Collection of Reminders:
- The Triduum ... Kidterrupted (finding the best approach to Holy Week -- for you and your family -- with young children.)
- A past post, on "paying attention" this week.
- Check on all the usual suspects: clothes for the children? Shoes that fit? Tights? Things for Ramona to do before the Easter Vigil begins. Baskets. Eastro-turf. Candy, candy, candy and candy.
- Waterproof mascara
- Eggs. Boil or prep them early so that when it's time to dye them I do not fall into sins of anger.
- Make butterflies to replace those Lenten caterpillars on Holy Saturday night.
- Wish our priests a happy anniversary on the commemoration of Christ's institution of the priesthood (Holy Thursday.) Thank God for the gift of the priesthood.
"Remember that you have only one soul; that you have only one death to die; that you have only one life ... If you do this, there will be many things about which you care nothing."
"Do not dismayed daughters, at the number of things which you have to consider before setting out on this divine journey, which is the royal road to heaven. By taking this road we gain such precious treasures that it is no wonder if the cost seems to us a high one."
"The time will come when we shall realize that all we have paid has been nothing at all by comparison with the greatness of our prizes."
Part 15: Looking Back and Looking Ahead (Alone at My First Easter Vigil)
Last night, we were trying to remember how old Ramona was when we first took her to the Easter Vigil. I couldn't access the memory so I turned to the Search box and found out she was three. This will be our fourth year to attend the Easter Vigil as a family. And that has me thinking back to what Easter used to be like around here.
My history of attending the Vigil is a history of growing up and growing into my life as a Catholic and as a Catholic wife and mother.
The year I was received into the Church, I attended the Vigil alone. Well, no, not entirely alone -- my lovely sponsor was with me, of course. Her name was Carolyn. We had first met the night they told me she would sponsor me. I felt so alone that night, so pitiful. A stranger as a sponsor? How weird is this, I remember thinking. The whole class must feel sorry for me.
I had wanted my friend, Jack, to be my sponsor, but a weekly two-hour drive for RCIA classes was impractical, so Carolyn was assigned to me and slowly we got to know each other.
So, I had Carolyn at the Vigil, and Jack came, too. And he brought along a friend, just to keep him company on the two-hour drive to the Church (and for the two hours he would drive home that night.)
Carolyn, Jack, and someone I barely knew. Atticus stayed home with Anne-with-an-e, who was about 18 months old. He didn't want to stop me from becoming a Catholic, but he didn't particularly want to be a part of it, either.
That first Easter Vigil was a frightening, incandescent event. Fear and awe mingled with an odd detachment, an observation of all that I was doing, of what was happening. At the last minute, I was tapped on the shoulder and asked to be one of the candidates who would help to carry the gifts up to the priest. I remember shaking a little as I carried the decanter of wine. This is going to become the Precious Blood of Jesus, I thought. And I will consume Him -- Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. And I am here alone.
No, not alone! I scolded myself. Your friend is here, and all these people are here. And God is here.
And yet, in a specific way, because I am a married woman, I felt alone. My husband was not there.
When I received Holy Communion for the first time that night, I did not experience magic. I didn't instantly change, nor did my feelings. I was not suddenly transported to a new place of giddy joy. Something I wished for (spiritual unity in my marriage) was still missing. And yet, I felt ... what? Grounded. Firm. Certain. I did not have a single regret about what I was doing.
I wasn't sure how I could feel quiet exultation and deep sadness at the same time, but I did. I knew this was the right thing.
Perhaps it's because I knew, down to my bones, this:
I was not alone. (To be continued ....)
Part 16: Looking Back and Looking Ahead (In Which He Makes My Crooked Ways Straight)
I left my first Easter Vigil knowing that despite my sadness over my husband's refusal to consider Catholicism, I had a steadfast companion. Jesus had not let me down, and the quiet exultation I felt while in His presence continued.
I attended my second Easter Vigil as a sponsor. Actually, as a neophyte, I had no business sponsoring someone else so soon, but no one knew better, and I was eager to help. My family was not really a part of Holy Week that year. Atticus stayed home with two-year-old Anne. I was very pregnant with Betsy, but otherwise, it was just Me and My Candidate. I reveled in sharing Holy Week with someone who was excited about it and full of questions.
The next year, I was on the RCIA team. Holy Week was again a time to share my excitement and joy with others -- candidates and catechumens. Still, no Atticus. He stayed home with our two very little girls.
I continued to be a part of the RCIA team the following year. I loved it. Really loved it -- listening to others' stories, teaching, answering questions, learning more all the time ... I loved it so much that when I began to feel that God was calling me away from it, I didn't want to listen to Him. He couldn't possibly want me to stop, could He?
But, the whisper I kept hearing was that I needed to pull back from "church work" ... pull back from witnessing to others, and witness in a different way -- in my own home. To my husband. I felt God nudging me to show Atticus that my love for him and for the family God had given us was my overriding call, my vocation, and the most important thing in our world.
And so, with a heavy heart I resigned from the team, at least temporarily. And when Holy Week rolled around that year, it felt very strange to me to be home on Holy Thursday night. Instead of the gorgeous Mass I had come to love, I was at home with my little girls, creating a "Holy Family meal" and coloring pictures of the Last Supper, and watching five-year-old Anne-with-an-e build a crucifix out of blocks. Instead of being absorbed in behind-the-scenes RCIA prep and busy-ness in those final days before the Easter Vigil, I was home, calm, present. Instead of being out late on Holy Saturday night with people Atticus didn't even know, I was at home with him. That year we went to Mass on Easter Sunday morning, as a family (though he was adamant that he was still not considering the Catholic Church; he was merely being courteous to me.)
I was also expecting another baby, though we lost the baby the month after Easter. I asked our baby to intercede for his father.
Then, later that summer, something changed.
Atticus and I had been having a lot of conversations about faith. He had been thinking, he said, about the nature of evil -- about how evil really comes down to being separated from God. I will never forget the moment when he said to me, "And I don’t think I want to be separated anymore. I want to be where you and the girls are."
I remember where I was sitting. I remember the tears that welled up in my eyes. I remember my disbelief ("I can't believe he believes!" I thought.) And, I remember cautiously imagining that we would become a Catholic family.
But, not so fast, Missy. Atticus assured me that what he meant was simply that he wanted to further explore things.
Hmm. I happened to know an RCIA team that could use another member. I grabbed the chance to rejoin the team and to let my husband "tag along" and listen in. The priest and the RCIA director were entirely open to allowing Atticus as an unofficial participant for as long as he liked. (It didn't hurt that the priest was the one who had suggested the year before that we both pray to St. Therese for Atticus's conversion.)
I've written before about the journey of that year.
The Easter Vigil of 2000 brought a joy into our lives that, at one time, I thought I'd never see. Five years after the Vigil in which I'd been received, Atticus came into the Church.
For the next few years, we sacrificed experiencing the majesty of the Vigil for the things that worked best for our little family. Our young daughters handled Mass on Easter Sunday morning better than a late Saturday night, so that was our tradition for awhile.
When Ramona was two years old, I decided to take the older girls to the Easter Vigil while Atticus stayed home with Ramona. Anne-with-an-e and Betsy were excited to attend, as I'd been preparing them for it, and teaching them about what they would see.
The following year, when Ramona was three, we tried the Vigil with the whole family. It worked fairly well, except that Ramona slept through the whole thing, and then was up for hours after we got home. (Not so good if the Easter Bunny is waiting to come to your house.) The next year, when she was four, all the pieces fell into place.
Our whole family now attends the Vigil together, no one falls asleep, we all look forward to the baptisms, my daughters try to predict when I'll start crying, Atticus and I reminisce, and then we head home and celebrate with delectable food and drink.
There have been so many times in my life when I've had no idea what God would do next -- times I couldn't see through the dark tunnel to the light at the end. I had to walk in blindness until He would lead me to the next step.
That's what faith is -- a series of tentative steps in the dark, with wholehearted trust that my Guide is leading and won't let me fall.
When I converted alone and lost unity with my husband, when I left a ministry I loved, when I lost babies and arguments and every sense of firm footing ... God was still at work.
I just had to trust.
And to hold on, with all my strength, to the knowledge that I was not, I am not, alone.
"I will lead the blind on their journey; by paths unknown I will guide them. I will turn darkness into light before them, and make crooked ways straight. These things I do for them, and I will not forsake them."
~~ Isaiah 42:16
"For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for good and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope."
~~ Jeremiah 29:11