So, what is this Lent thing all about, anyway?
Recently I was talking with my spiritual director about Lent, and I got one of those God-echoes that made a tear escape down my cheek. You know, one of those "God-has-been-telling-me-this-for-years, and clearly-now-it's-happening-again" things. Either he has profound insight into me (meh, don't really think so), or my struggles really aren't unlike those of others (could it be? I'm a little normal?!)
The basic theme was that Lent is about becoming more fully the one God has made us to be. Owning it; living it. Of course God has made us to be holy, to be saints. But there are no generic saints; there are specific humans. We don't get to be holy by destroying or rejecting the model God has made and remaking something that strikes us as more acceptable. We become holy by being ourselves. Humbly, acceptingly, being ourselves.
That is exactly what God told me when I was in my Catholic no-man's land, when I was going to Mass but waiting on the doorstep, for 18 months, to be received. "If you want to serve me simply be yourself." (I leave out the potential commas in that sentence, because everything God says always bears more than one nuance.)
This used to terrify me, this notion of being myself. I had no idea how to do it, first of all, and it also seemed incredibly risky. I kinda knew I am by nature a red marble in a sea of yellow marbles.
I read something last night that illustrates this thing I've said about how I come to grips with some truth, and then hear it taught by the Carmelites. Apparently, this thing was the cornerstone of St. Therese's spirituality as well.
"If you are willing to bear serenely the trial of being displeasing to yourself, then you will be... [for Jesus] a pleasant place of shelter." St. Therese, to her sister Celine as a new member of Carmel.
Joseph F. Schmidt, FSC, elaborates (in his book Everything is Grace): "In this case, Therese saw that Celine needed to lose her discouragement, which was self-centered, and particularly to lose her willfulness, which drove her to strive for self-improvement. That harsh willfulness was itself a kind of violent obstacle to the power of the Holy Spirit in her. If Celine would be willing to lose her attachments to herself and enter the path of humility, serenely bearing the pain of honestly being herself, that willingness, humility and honesty would put her on the path of transformation."One reason it takes so much courage to be ourselves is that we all have this displeasing aspect to us. I'm quite sure God made us that way. If we could be thoroughly pleased with ourselves (honestly, not arrogantly) we would not seek Him. To believe that we are loved by God and by others while at the same time not pleasing ourselves to some degree or another is an act of faith. An incredible one, to my mind. To believe we are loved is to accept that Love is bigger than we are. To believe we are loved is to be humble.
Lent is really about coming face to face with believing we are loved, with Love who loves us. It is about letting God have His way. It is about letting His love enter in. When it enters in, by its nature it changes us and starts to flow out of us. That is so much different from a self-improvement checklist that we conquer by willpower.
Lent is not about starving myself or proving to myself, to God, or others how good I am. It's not about mentally beating myself up because I'm so weak, and yelling at myself to improve. This idea that inflicting pain and suffering on ourselves earns us God's love is either pride, or a grossly deficient understanding of God. Self-inflicted suffering is NOT synonymous with penance. Penance is to dig deeper into love, to dig deeper into the ground of our weakness and failings that will always be there and to find ourselves, again, loved -- even there.