The penitential season of Lent has begun. I was halfway through a bowl of white chocolate ice cream with raspberries and chocolate chips at Coldstone Creamery before I remembered.
It’s not as though I hadn’t given Lent any thought. I’d decided to give up entertainment for Lent — television, movies, mysteries and romances. I’d also decided to fast after dinner in the evening — which probably wouldn’t amount to much for most people, but I’m an evening snacker, so it will undoubtedly be a challenge for me. And, as usual, I’ll give up sweets; Lent and chocolate simply don’t go together in my mind.
I attribute my forgetfulness to two factors. First, I woke in the middle of the night with a vicious headache that kept me awake for hours. I couldn’t even read, which is my usual method for coping with sleeplessness, because the light made it worse. Since I’d not experienced that before, I scared myself by wondering if I had a brain aneurysm and would be dead by morning.
Sometime in the midst of my worrying, I finally dozed off. When the alarm tugged me from sleep this morning, I was groggy — and disheartened to discover the sky spitting rain and snow. I’d committed myself to taking a woman I’d never met to the dentist, which involved an hour-long drive along a winding mountain road, a drive I preferred not to make when the weather promised poor visibility and road conditions. But a promise is a promise, so an hour after rising from a relatively sleepless night, I hit the road with a stranger.
I learned my passenger needed dental work because of beatings she had sustained — beatings so severe she also has optic nerve damage and can no longer read (which I find unimaginable), and lives on disability. My heart went out to her. I’ve been in abusive relationships, but escaped with no more than a bruised body and broken spirit. After learning about her past, I just wanted to do something for her — something relatively insignificant that still might feel special.
That is the second factor which contributed to my forgetfulness. When she asked for some yogurt or ice cream, I decided to take her to Coldstone, where she could develop her own ice cream creation. She was a little concerned about the cost, but I wanted her to have that experience — and I wanted to share it with her. I know that sharing positive experiences is part of the healing process, and I wanted to contribute in a small way to her healing.
And so it was, when I attended tonight’s liturgy and was reminded with ashes from whence I came, I found myself thinking of healing — which had nothing to do with the readings — and experiencing joy, which is a far cry from repentence. God is good, I kept thinking. In my complete unworthiness, God is so good.
Finally, this evening, I was able to check out Facebook to see what had popped up over the course of the day. Among the posts was a link from Father James Martin, a Jesuit whose page I “liked” because his books have had such an impact on me. The link carried me to a 3-minute meditation called “Unconditional Love” on the Loyola Press website.
There, everything came together — repentence and forgiveness, which are so much a part of Lent, and the healing and joy I was experiencing. It was all there in a three minute meditation on the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:21-24).
“What surprises me most about the forgiving father’s response?” That was the question posed for reflection. My immediate, gut-level response was: his over-the-top, no-holds-barred joy. That response led me to a new place, with this parable — not that this insight is original; it’s just that I’d not thought of it in conjunction with this parable before today.
How often do we take the gifts God has given us into the world and build lives for ourselves — careers, reputations, networks of associates and colleagues, bank accounts — that all too often leave us feeling dirty and dissatisfied because of the compromises we’ve made to advance ourselves in the eyes of the world? And then the day comes when it just doesn’t matter and we are filled with a longing, a hunger, for something else. At that point, we begin to seek with our hearts this God we left behind — left behind, sometimes, while still going through the motions of faith.
But, as soon as we turn to him with our hearts, he meets us with such joy and pours out on us such blessings — maybe not blessings the world can see, but blessings so inexplicably sweet joy bubbles up within us. We are forgiven and we are healed and we know those experiences are two sides of the same coin which God gives us willingly and abundantly. Somehow out of that, he begins to teach us how the gifts we carried into the world can be used as we make our home with him.
I am still learning that final lesson, but I am wide open to the experience, and the joy I knew today suggests I might be starting to get it right. That is all I want.