Lent promises way more than we imagine

Editor’s note: The COVID-19 pandemic has made us reflect on what is most important in life. This week we begin an eight-part Lenten series of reflections on how readers can take their experiences from 2020 and apply them to Lent and Easter 2021.

Angie smiled broadly and laughed. I was impressed by her capacity to experience and express such a relaxed joy after 10 months of pandemic that felt like an endless Lent. It had been an exhausting grind, an emotional slugfest. Through the Zoom screen, I sensed her warmth, her kindness and her tender compassion.

 “I am awed by your ability to laugh,” I offered.

She smiled and tilted her head to the side, “Well, if I don’t laugh, I’ll cry. And there has been more than enough of that.”

Nursing school hadn’t prepared Angie for the emotions of pandemic frontlines. Every day now, it seemed, she sat with people as their hearts stopped, then started, then stopped forever. She held phones and tablets as spouses, children and parents sitting in other rooms said their final, tearful good-byes. She hugged her fellow nurses and some of the doctors as they cried in shared pain. Then she went home and did her best to be mother, teacher and spouse. Day after day after day.

Life gives us deserts we often don’t choose for ourselves, deserts we are led into because our love takes us there, deserts we are called to for reasons we can’t see or understand. These extended patches of parched earth have names like Cancer, Depression, Alzheimer’s, Job Loss, Divorce, Grief, Parkinson’s and, most recently, Pandemic. None of us, it seems, gets to pilgrim through life without spending 40 days, 40 weeks, 40 months or even 40 years wandering in one or more of these confusing deserts.

Angie is one of several health care workers I had the privilege of interviewing recently. At the end of each conversation, my final question was this: “What has this pandemic taught you about yourself?” It’s my favorite question, and I feel blessed to sit and witness these sacred moments of sincere self-reflection and vulnerability.

The answers, while intensely personal, are also surprisingly universal. There is a quiet pause, a peaceful smile, and then eyes widen brightly as each person reveals growth and self-discovery. Specifically, they express a realization of deeper love, inner strength, perseverance and self-capacity. That last piece, self-capacity, is particularly intriguing. Doctors, nurses, therapists and even members of the housekeeping staff use the exact same words: I have discovered I am capable of way more than I imagined.

That is a powerful self-revelation – I am capable of way more than I imagined. Think for a moment of how much closer to God’s kingdom those words can take us. I am capable of way more love, mercy, generosity, hope and kindness than I imagined. I am capable of way more “blessed-are-the-poor-in-spirit,” way more “whatsoever-you-do-for-the-least,” way more “this-is-my-commandment-that-you-love-one-another” than I ever imagined. However hot, itchy and uncomfortable the desert may be for us, it still blooms to life with the most surprisingly beautiful desert flowers.

Most of us have not pilgrimmed through the pandemic the same way frontline health care workers have. Still, we have experienced isolation and separation, loneliness and loss, fear and anxiety. Many of us have gotten sick, lost people we love and seen our families torn apart. We’ve lost jobs, income and security, leaving us forced to confront and contemplate our own vulnerability. Along the way, we have been tempted by the dark whispers of denialism (“COVID-19 isn’t a big deal”); tempted by the sinister voices of complacency (“It’s God’s will if someone gets sick or even dies”); and tempted by the angry shouts of self-righteousness (“Masks and social distancing infringe on my freedoms!”). Such is our human condition, Scripture reminds us. Even Jesus wrestles with temptations in the desert.

As Catholic disciples, we enter the Lenten desert differently than we have other years. It does not feel like a new season on the church calendar or a period set aside for reflection and repentance. Instead, this time around, it feels much more like a continuation of a year in which Lent has become the new norm.

There are, however, great gifts and opportunity in this experience. How much more do we look forward to Easter? Suddenly, the notion of resurrection is not an ancient event we celebrate annually; it’s a new state of reality we yearn for. Rather than merely marking or witnessing new light, new hope and new life, we hunger for the experience; we pine to participate. This year, unlike any other year, we approach Easter not as a day or a season, but as a new reality.

There is hope on the horizon, the guaranteed promise of an empty tomb. The Son shall rise. New light will shine, and we, hopefully, will be changed for the better, having discovered we are capable of way more than we imagine.

Deacon Meyer is co-founder of Whatsoever You Do, Inc. and StreetLights Outreach. He is the author of several books, including “God Plays a Purple Banjo” and “Jesus Wears Socks with Sandals.” His most recent book, “How to Hit a Homerun Homily — A Guide for Preachers, Teachers, and Soul-Reachers,” will be released this spring. He serves at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Green Bay.

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