By Sister Marcella Clancy, CSJ
If the title of this blog caught your eye, chances are good that like me, you’ve lived through many Lents. Over the years it’s easy to start having embedded ideas about Lent; to fall into long-established practices and cultivated expectations of what we should accomplish or achieve. This year, I wonder if it is time for me to take a fresh look at the season before Easter.
I am caught by a line from the first reading from the Book of Joel for Ash Wednesday: “Return to Me with your whole heart.” What an extraordinary Scripture with which to begin Lent. It seems to me it is a call of profound yearning that rises deep from the heart of God. It is a call toward ardent intimacy. The first word of God with which we are to begin this 40-day journey proclaims the passion with which God desires our whole being.
When I was younger, the image I had of what I was to do during Lent was similar to the actions of a sculptor. I wanted to be my own Michelangelo. I thought through my Lenten practices I could chisel myself into a holy woman, that if I was faithful enough to prayer, penance and acts of charity, I could arrive at Easter a transformed woman. Instead I always arrived at Holy Week a little disappointed. I was never quite faithful enough to become as holy as I longed to be. It seemed I was left with the same flaws and faults I had on Ash Wednesday. It took me a long time to realize that growing into the fullness of who God created me to be is primarily the work of God, and not accomplished through my own efforts.
I once had a memorial card of an artist friend. On it there was a simple prayer: “May my clay be ever moist that I may not lose the impression of Your fingers.” It seems to me this is a better image of Lent – not of myself as sculptor with a hammer and chisel in hand but of God as a Potter with tender and knowing fingers gently shaping the clay of my being. The Lenten practices of prayer, penance, and acts of charity do not make me holy but are simply the watering that makes me moist so God can have Her way with me. “Just like clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand.” (Jeremiah 18:6)
It is good to discern what Lenten practices God is calling us to. But life is messy. There are daily frustrations, misunderstandings, irritations and annoyances. There may also be great sorrow, disappointment, pain or loss. Though I do not believe God causes any of this, the messiness provides opportunities to respond with humility, patience and love. There have been times I was so intent in being faithful to my prayer that I overlooked someone who needed a listening ear or helping hand. How do I recognize those occasions when I am presented with an opportunity to love not as I choose, but as life presents to me? As God presents to me?
Yet I think there is still a more profound perspective by which I am to walk the Lenten journey. I could live the season as I usually do – out of my “shoulds”, my desire to be holy or my yearning to yield to God. Yet with age comes wisdom, and I’ve come to realize it is not about me. It is about God.
Early on in my life, martyrs, missionaries and saints became my heroes and heroines. I wanted to imitate them, be like them. It felt to me that they knew a divine secret. A hidden mystery from which all else flows – how tenderly, deeply, fully and unconditionally God loves me. I can never fully grasp this profound reality, but it moves me to extraordinary gratitude, humility and love.
It is not by chance that we begin this sacred journey of Lent with the ardent, longing cry of God. This year, may we hear more deeply this divine secret silently pleading in our hearts: “Return to Me…I want nothing less than all of you.”
About the Author
Sister Marcella Clancy, CSJ, has degrees in nursing and theology. In the past she ministered in hospitals, taught nursing and theology at the college level and served in parishes in the Archdiocese of Detroit. Currently, Sister Marcella ministers as a spiritual director, facilitates retreats and offers presentations through Transformation Spirituality Center at our Nazareth Center in Kalamazoo.