I am behind on my Lenten writing project. In past years, I would treat Lent like I do Advent and try to blog each day as part of a mindful practice to honor the season. I always have visions of this grandiose plan that I attempt to pass off as simplistic. I think I will have oodles of contemplative time to honor the silence or ponder the agony in the desert and forget that oodles of contemplative time is a luxury that working parents of teenagers do not enjoy. The reality is that Lent is here and the rest of the world with all of its obligations still revolves around a secular schedule. Just the act of mindfully observing Lent is its most basic simple forms, is going to be a challenge. I’ll do my best to blog daily, I know you will all be sympathetic if it doesn’t quite work out.
Definition: suffering (noun) sʌf ər ŋ 1. Pain; physical or psychological pain and distress. 2. Painful experience; an experience that is painful or distressing.
This Lent started with a very heavy work obligation. I’m part of an events department and we had our three day conference with 120 attendees start on Ash Wednesday. My partner in crime for this event is also a Catholic and we agreed we would get up early on Wednesday and enjoy the Ash Wednesday service at Holy Name Cathedral, two blocks down the street from our event and then we would slip back into the conference with our obligation served.
So, a little side note here: I am not a cradle Catholic. I was raised in a Christian religion that did not emphasize a whole lot of ritual or express many outward signs of worship. We didn’t even wear crucifix jewelry. For my emotionally distant, non-affection showing, Nordic ancestral family, this was perfect! We love not talking about feelings and other messy things! However, Catholics LOVE this stuff!
Catholicism drew me in with the meaning and purpose of symbolic things like the distribution of ashes as a tangible sign of my non dualistic nothingness and preciousness to God. But my discomfort with outward expressions of religion was challenged. Couldn’t we place the ashes on my arm or some other place that I could cover up? On Ash Wednesday as I leave the church, I still struggle with what feels to me like carrying a neon sign with the words “Ask me about the giant splotch on my forehead.”. I’m not comfortable with people asking me about it! God is completely on to me and my insecurity because I’m certain it is no coincidence that every year, I get the one priest who really knows how to dig his thumb into the ashes and lather it on thick enough to last all day. Unlike my friend, I don’t have a nice full set of bangs to cover it up.
As I’m involved in the events of the day I’m not thinking about Lent, or the fact that I have a giant black smudge on my forehead. Like any other work day, I’m thinking about things that need to get done; presentation materials, technology issues and hotel check-ins. Everyone once in a while, I would carry on a conversation with someone and notice they are not looking me in the eye, but staring at my forehead. I would slip away to the restroom and catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and have a moment of shock when I see a large black cross on my pasty white skin before my brain recalls why it is there in the first place. Walking across the lobby, someone makes a humorous comment about “dirt on my face” and it takes a moment before I recognize what they are referring to. During dinner I decide to break the ice with someone I barely know with a question about marketing plans and instead enjoy an incredibly awkward conversation about how happy he is that I went to church today. My first thought is “How did he know I went to church today, and why doesn’t he want to talk about marketing?”
………oh yeah, giant black cross on my forehead.
Everyone one of these things caused me to suffer just a little bit. (Ok, “suffer” seems a little extreme, but this is Lent and it is all about looking for the suffering.) For the next 40 days I should be focusing on not just my discomfort but the commonality of that suffering with those around me. Lent gives us an opportunity not to just improve ourselves by removing sweet treats from our diet, but recognize how we share uneasiness, embarrassment, worry and anxiety with everyone else in the world and allow God the opportunity to reach in and heal it.
As I moved throughout the day on Wednesday, I felt very uncomfortable with each reminder of the outward sign on my face but by the time the awkward dinner conversation rolled around, I could also sense the discomfort of this person at my table as well. While he fumbled his words and mentioned Jesus for the 5th or 6th time I truly felt a kinship with him. Part of me really wanted to reach across the table and that tell him I didn’t want to be that weird Catholic chick with dirt on her face right now and he didn’ need to feel obligated to talk about it. But I decided to just share in his uneasiness and make it as pleasant as possible for the both of us.