As I recall, I noticed my that my Lenten observance first slipped away around 6:54 p.m. on Thursday, March 7, 2019. Or to be even more precise, it was barely 24 hours since I walked out the doors of my parish, sharing a hug with the pastor who’d reminded me of my mortality with a cross smudged on my forehead an hour earlier, and headed out into Lent.
A day later, and that whole “giving something up” thing? Yeah. Epic fail.
In fact, it was summarily dispatched to Hades at approximately 7:55 the morning after Ash Wednesday, when I received email from a friend at work. Due to various corporate things happening, other corporate things happened. Nothing lethal, just some changes in our work that I hadn’t anticipated. Whatever doesn’t kill me looks good on the performance review. Or something. Such is life.
But because of that message, and having slept poorly last night sensing that this news was looming, my Lenten observance came to a screeching halt.
I didn’t stop to breathe.
I didn’t pause to think of anything for which I’m grateful.
I … complained.
I also took a tour through whiny melodrama (did I mention that I hadn’t slept?) and wound up in surly and sarcastic. I was in an utterly foul mood the rest of the day. I complained to some close friends outside of work about what was going on. I complained to my management about how this project is both critical and now critically under-resourced. I muttered an epithet at my computer as I wrote up a presentation for something I really don’t believe that I can pull off on my own.
And then, as the workday drew to a close, I tallied up the total. $10 – $50 – $90 – yeah, sitting at $170 right now. That’s the amount I have to transfer into the account where I’m tracking my Lenten practice – at least this part of it – the “complaint bank.”
As a kid, I did Lent the usual way. Give something up (bananas, often; I loathe bananas). I would pick up a CRS Rice Bowl at church and toss in my spare change. Later, and until recently, I gave up meat every year, until I realized that I could go for weeks at a time without eating meat anyway. That was right up there with avoiding bananas.
One memorable year I made a Lenten pact to give up swearing. My son was in third grade at his sweet little parochial school in Portland, Oregon, and I wanted to be more conscious of setting a good example. So for every word uttered from a list that’s probably the same one that I can’t use in my blog posts here, I had to toss $5 into a jar. The proceeds went to My Little Parish™, a mission to folks living on the streets in Portland.
I don’t remember the exact total of the accumulated bill my inappropriate language cost me. The parish did pretty well that year, although I definitely made most of my deposits early on in Lent. As the balance increased, so too did my awareness of the language I was using. Deposits into the jar stopped well before the Triduum as I tailored certain words out of my vocabulary.
This past year has been the best and the worst of times. When I got out of bed early in the morning a few days ago to contemplate it all, I saw all of the blessings that I experience every day. My beloved son (in whom I am well pleased) is doing well and is happy in college and in his relationship – several hours away. I have to med board my fractious cat when I travel – the cat who was expected to die in October 2017. The really amazing work I did for six months last year was cancelled, but it was truly a gift to be able to do it at all, and it’s a gift that’s continued through new friendship, new ways of thinking and working, and even some ideas for a future career path.
Yet as I saw so much for which I’m grateful, I noticed something a little disturbing: I also viewed so many of the good things in the light of loss and complaint. Rather than see the goodness, I sometimes focus on the distance, the expense, and the loss. Or in Jesuit language, I focus on the desolation – times when I feel alone and lost, not on the consolation, when I sense the presence of God, and can see those around me as being made in God’s image and likeness – Imago Dei – regardless of what’s happening in my life, and who they are to me.
This year, my Lenten observance is focused on shifting that balance. Complaints are billed at a flat rate of $10 per whine. If I’m frustrated and can’t find my way to peace – well, there’s another $10.
And then there’s gratitude. Last night, I was grateful to go to Mass at a parish where I’m not only welcome, but where I’ve been asked to write something for the bulletin this Lent about the experience of being queer and Catholic and knowing with every fiber of my being that I’m welcome there. I’m beyond grateful that there’s something that even exists to write about.
That gratitude for my parish alone is enough for all six weeks of Lent, or forever – but it was on my list last night. I could go to Mass in a place where I’m out and accepted – and be home. I need to work through my inability to make it through morning prayers and meditation, but it’s a gift to get up every morning, y’all. That struggle to hear God’s voice is prayer enough. Fasting from complaining will be harder.
At the beginning of Lent, I was not feeling optimistic. It was a pretty lousy day, and the challenges have continued, along with awareness of my own tendency to see problems first, and to not see the goodness around me as readily. But I’m committed. Every day is another day to get up and sit in silence to listen for the stirrings of the Spirit. It’s a day to look at what’s happening at work as an opportunity, not just a loss.
I’ll be honest – I’ve had some pretty lousy days. I didn’t give up any food items for Lent this year, so one night I had a pizza delivered, and enjoyed an adult beverage alongside. I watched the first two episodes of “The Sopranos” – not that I plan to add binge-watching to my Lenten observance this year, but lovingkindness includes oneself, and I struggled with that one today. I couldn’t find “Game of Thrones,” so “The Sopranos” it will be.
When I was questioning whether I had a home in our messy Church many years ago, a wise priest counseled, “Jesus never promised us ‘Easy.” Some days it would be the struggle to be queer and out. Other days, fury at the Church’s response to the priest abuse crisis. Then there’d be days like today: the most mundane grievances and losses getting in the way of us remembering who we are – and who we’re called to be.
Lent’s longing, sorrow, and incompleteness remind us that “easy” and life in this messy but beautiful faith don’t always go together, not to mention the challenges of daily life in the secular world. But Jesus did promise us the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, to remind us to whom we belong – all of us. And Jesus promised us peace. “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.” (John 14:26-27)
Still plenty more Lent to go, y’all. Walk with me, and make it a good one?
—Sarah Gregory, New Ways Ministry, March 28, 2019