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Out of the crib, onto the cross


Lent … Again! … Already!

In my former parish there was a sacristan who, in the ways of the world, might be called “not too bright.” But he had his own wisdom. In those years when Ash Wednesday seemed to arrive right on the heels of Christmas -- as it does this year -- one could hear him muttering as he went about his duties, “Out of the crib and onto the cross. Out of the crib and onto the cross.”

In my town the wreathes are still on the light standards and, while our home decorations are all put away, I still have a few Christmas letters to reread, a few notes to write in response. But my church says Lent, and Lent it is, especially for a liturgist and choir director who has to prepare at least a little ahead.

Sometimes life seems to move just that fast -- from the cradle to the grave. Last night I was enjoying a rare hug from my youngest son, now 17 years old. He and his older brother had just finished moving a freezer for us. A freezer! I looked at this broad, strong kid and thought, “Who are you and what did you do with my baby?”

For me, Lent is about slowing down time. Fifteen years ago when my middle son was 5, I was driving somewhere with him. It was a week before Lent. He asked me what we were late for. I told him nothing, we were right on time. “Then why are we rushing?” he asked. I told him we weren’t, but he said, “Oh yes, we are!” and I realized he was right. I was pressing on the steering wheel, driving up on the car in front of me, sighing at red lights.

So then I knew what I was giving up for Lent -- rushing.

Years before, when I was a young and eager minister, I was going about my business in church, preparing something just before the Mass was to begin. My first confessor and spiritual director -- a wise, old Jesuit whose introductory words to me in the confessional were, “You’re talking too loud” -- pulled me aside and gently said, “You’re moving too fast. Slow down.”

To this day, when I enter a church building I slow down. Not just my pace but my whole metabolism. My heart beats more calmly, my thoughts become more measured. I become gentler. It was a great gift my spiritual director and my 5-year-old son gave me: the awareness of my pace and the desire to do something about it.

I find that Lent helps me to take more care. I am more aware than ever of how fast and loud our world is. In response, I try (try!) to follow the ancient wisdom of our tradition and, I think, all religious traditions, that wisdom alluded to in the gospel of Ash Wednesday (Matthew 6): to fast, give alms and pray.

There was a time when I thought fasting in Lent -- giving up desserts or wine with dinner -- was silly and unsophisticated. Not nearly as spiritually advanced as, say, performing a kind act each day. That is, until I tried it. Now added to the very real penance of refusing to put something in my mouth is the temptation that it is also petty and ridiculous and God cannot possibly care whether or not I eat just this one piece and, besides, it isn’t hurting anyone, especially if no one knows … yadayadayada.

But why do we fast? I think it’s because fasting sharpens our vision and helps us to distinguish between that which is the gift and the One who is the Giver. We “give up something” to know the difference between the blessing and the One from whom all blessings flow.

Hardly anyone would argue with the virtue of giving alms, but again we are confronted with the pettiness of our efforts. And perhaps that is the point. When we give alms, we become aware of the suffering of others and we are confronted with our own poverty of resources to alleviate that suffering. Perhaps it is then that we are most like Jesus who saved us out of his own poverty. In the face of the sin and suffering of the world, his efforts were almost ridiculous in their smallness. He, too, was slow in a too-fast world. Quiet in a too-loud world.

And what about prayer? Recently I was at an out-of-town planning meeting. As we were setting a date for the inevitable follow-up conference call, one of our members mentioned that he was going in for surgery and wouldn’t be available on a particular day. Of course, we asked him more about it, and as he described what the professionals call “a minor procedure” and I call “torture.” He ended with an offhand “pray for me.” My partner, who has taught me a lot about these things, immediately entered a note in his planner, and I did so, too. Later, our surgery-facing friend confided to me that he was very touched by how seriously we took his casual request.

I don’t know what to think about the power of prayer. But I do believe that when we pray, it is not so much that we convince God to see as we see -- how presumptuous is that! -- but that we come to see as God sees. Or, perhaps better, we come to be as God is -- at least for a moment.

Lent is the time the church gives us to take stock of our lives, to change a bad habit, to begin something new or perhaps to recover something old and precious. To slow down. Be quiet.

So . . . what are you giving up for Lent?

Paige Byrne Shortal is a pastoral associate in a parish in rural Missouri.

National Catholic Reporter, February 8, 2002