Better than Chocolate

Lent has rolled around again. I missed Mass on Ash Wednesday, for which I should probably feel more guilty than I do, but I’ve given up candy, as well as chocolate in all forms, and I’ve begun on online retreat called “An Ignatian Prayer Adventure.”

I missed Mass because of scheduling and personal knowledge of my limitations. An early morning Mass works well for the average working person, but is difficult for an individual who works a 2-10 p.m. shift, and becomes more than just difficult when said person is my age and would not be able to sneak a nap between Mass and work. I went to Mass the evening before, though that didn’t involve ashes, and trusted God to make allowances more righteous believers might be unable justify.

As for the retreat, I suspect I will remain engaged in it after Lent and Easter have passed. I found myself stuck on the second day of Week One for three days. The meditation was based on Psalm 139, which has long been a favorite of mine, but I found God using it in a new way — to shift the kaleidoscope of my self-image in a way which allowed me to experience his love in an even more intimate manner than I had previously known. One night, I found myself on my knees in humble gratitude. At this rate, I’ll probably wrap it up in time to welcome the newborn Christ child months after Easter.

As for chocolate, I am beginning to suspect fasting from chocolate isn’t going to be the sacrifice it’s been in the past. As a self-professed chocoholic — it’s one of the basic food groups, isn’t it? — I have to admit that few days pass without chocolate passing between my lips. Sometimes it’s just a plain old Hershey bar with almonds. Sometimes the chocolate has a little caramel with it — or peanut butter — or crispy wafers. Sometimes I treat myself to something a little more special, like Lindt truffles. My latest favorite, though, has been dark chocolate M&Ms mixed with peanuts. (Gosh! My mouth is watering just thinking about chocolate in all it’s wonderful variations.)

But within the past week, painting has become like a drug to me — dragging me into the studio when I should sensibly go to bed or responsibly tackle laundry or wisely spend time in prayer. Hours will elapse before I emerge feeling limp with satisfaction and pleasure. For the first time since I started painting again, my work demonstrates the elements which characterized my portraits in the past — the use of color, the spontaneous brushstrokes, the structured yet organic compositions. Order and chaos. Life. Me in it.

Ecstasy. I — who pride myself on being a wordsmith, who sharpened my skills by writing tightly constructed poetry — am reduced to wordless wonder by this development. When I began painting again, I was willing to accept what came my way. William Stafford, an amazing poet who died in 1993, once told me he didn’t suffer from writer’s block because he just lowered his standards and kept on going. That was my attitude in returning to a craft I had abandoned. I would paint and take pleasure in the process and discover in that the graces God would bring into my life through it.

And there have been graces. The series of leaf paintings I began has become a meditation on community for me. When we see a tree, we don’t take note of individual leaves, but each of them is vital to the life of the tree. In the same way, each individual is vital to the life of the community. Somehow, we must learn to appreciate one another, to see each person’s value, especially the value of those for whom we do not feel a natural affinity, if we’re to be healthy as communities — social communities, economic communities and communities of faith.

That alone would have been enough. But then, between one painting and the next, my work changed. The stiffness and hesitancy departed; the instincts which years of practice had honed beyond skill to personal style returned and I relaxed into a place both familar and exciting. With that, came a new passion that goes beyond the joy that drew me back to art. If I felt alive before, I feel intoxicated now and the sensual pleasure of it is better than chocolate.

I would not have believed anything available to me at this point in life could be better than chocolate, but this is. The irony of the timing is not lost on me. Joy — just in time for Lent. This is an Easter experience. This is grace poured out in the most intimate manner possible. This is new life, and I am grateful.

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