National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  March 19, 2004

Lent's scary downward path


Last weekend I was in a local department store, taking the escalator down to the ground floor. Ahead of me were a mom with a toddler in arms, and two little girls, about 6 and 8. The 6-year-old had gotten on and was riding ahead of us, but her older sister stood at the top of the escalator, frozen with fear.

“I can’t, Mommy!” she yelled down to Mom.

The mom was already almost at the bottom. Juggling packages as well as hefty bundle of baby, she attempted to climb back up the downward-moving escalator for the oldest child, but couldn’t.

“Just step on and hold on,” advised the mother.

“I can’t,” said the little girl, now close to tears.

Since Mom was fully in view, I asked the reluctant passenger, “Would you like to hold my hand? We can get on together.” She nodded yes through big wet tears.

“OK, put your other hand on the rail. Here’s a step coming. Let’s get on the next one.”

Every muscle quivering, she held my hand for dear life, and stepped on.

She was safely on the escalator, but it was clear she wasn’t liking the experience one bit.

“I know how you feel. These are kind of scary,” I said reassuringly.

Then with the wisdom of a pint-sized Dr. Phil, my hand-holding adventurer announced, “I don’t like these things. I need to be in control.”

“I understand completely,” I said.

I got some good insights into Lent from that little girl on the down escalator.

Lent is -- or perhaps should be? -- a rather scary time for Christians who truly enter into it. Not because we have to “give up stuff,” or because it lasts 40 days, but because Lent means going downward. And losing control.

Nobody likes the sense of spiraling downward. Everything in our society is about going up. Even contemporary jargon emphasizes it: upward mobility, getting “raises,” climbing to the top, moving up in the world.

The opposite? Going down. Getting as low as one can go. Hitting bottom. Definitely not an experience to be sought after.

Combine heading in a decidedly downward trajectory with the loss of sense of control and you’re pretty close to what John of the Cross describes as the “Dark Night” of soul and sense, a terrifying but necessary time of purification.

As I reflected on the insight my young fellow escalator traveler had shared, I began thinking of the many people I know this Lent who are coping with stepping onto frightening downward paths and feeling totally out of control: Friends whose hopes for salvaging their marriage have flickered out, now divorcing. Other friends and family members who have lost jobs or have learned they’re being downsized -- a euphemism attempting political correctness that nevertheless embodies the experience of descent if ever there were one. People battling substance abuse, or watching with feelings of hopelessness as it destroys their spouse or children. Loved ones seeing dreams of a lifetime dashed. Good friends struggling with serious health problems or who have just received word they have a life-threatening illness.

Lents like these are not the time to worry about giving up Chivas Regal or Oreos, losing a few pounds or saying a few extra prayers. Lents like these are the heavy-duty kairos times -- God’s time -- weighing down on us, when all we can do is simply exist, attempting to find meaning in this moment of supposed grace.

For some of us, this terrifying movement downward and out of control is a new or short-term experience. But in the much wider world it is the day-to-day life for millions of people. Homeless and starving populations, refugees, victims of violent repression and unjust regimes, victims of earthquake and famine and AIDS -- for these millions, Lent with its spiraling descent and no control over life and its events is not just 40 days, it’s a lifetime, 24/7.

The Gospels tell us Jesus was “driven by the Spirit into the desert,” where he spent 40 days. Scripture scholars tell us the verb “driven” connotes an inner coercion; Jesus could not do otherwise, couldn’t avoid it. But like my fellow escalator-rider, he probably didn’t relish the experience, any more than he took pleasure in that sequel to the desert a few years later, his passion and death.

The desert was a preparation for more apparent failure. Jesus did “go down” into death, that ultimate powerlessness. But our faith tells us he came out of the terrible Dark Night of desert, descent, and utter loss of control -- into new and unending life, for himself and all of us.

Deserts. Down escalators. Good places to find Lenten lessons for life.

~ ~ ~

The metaphor is getting tired, but I’ll use it one last time: Life, like escalators, transports us. With this issue I take leave of NCR, dedicated colleagues and you, our readers. Through a convergence of events and timing (perhaps otherwise known as divine providence), I have the opportunity to explore some longtime personal interests -- “heart wishes,” if you will. I ask your prayer for me and know that you’ll be held in mine on my journey -- whether that takes me through deserts, on escalators, or both. You can continue to reach me by e-mail at

National Catholic Reporter, March 19, 2004

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