The crosses Catholics bear for Lent: seven Christians tell how they make the most of the Lenten season.
Now I'm grown and a long time out of Catholic schools. I don't focus on Good Friday as much as I used to; I guess I prefer the glories of Easter. But each year as I grow older, I find that I have to consider all of the events of Jesus' life and how one led to another. In a few years, I will have to pass on to my little boy my understanding of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection when he begins to ask questions such as, "Why is Jesus stuck up there on the cross like that?"
Catholics from across the country face Lent each year in their own ways. Some love this time of the year; others hate it. But what seems certain is that Lent offers people the opportunity to think about their faith and how they are living out their lives as Christians. It is a time that many dwell on the suffering and sacrifice of our Savior and his mother. Some put themselves in Jesus' or Mary's position and experience enormous grief. Others believe that Lent is a time to understand and accept the huge love that God has for all people.
Jesus it seems, isn't the only one who is resurrected on Easter Sunday. Many exit Lent with a reborn sense of respect for one another and for creation. Edna St. Vincent Millay expresses in her poem "Renascence," this feeling of resurrection that many people often experience after they have lived through the 40 days of Lent. Part of the poem reads:
I would I were alive
To kiss the fingers of the
To drink into my eyes the
Of every slanting silver
To catch the freshened,
From drenched and dripping
I really appreciate that Lent begins in wintery weather and ends with the sprouting of spring. As new life bursts forth, many Catholics who have actively participated in Lent arrive at Easter's doorstep with a deeper love for God, Jesus, and Mary. Some of their stories follow.
In loving memory
Carlos Cueto doesn't hesitate to express his feelings when talking about Lent.
"It took me a long time to appreciate Lent," says Cueto, a business consultant from Miami. "I hated Lent."
Lent used to be a very sad time for him. "I hated to rethink everything the Lord had to suffer. I used to feel gloomy about Advent, too, because I knew in just a few months Lent and the suffering were coming."
Understanding how Jesus gave up his life out of pure love helped put a positive spin on Lent, Cueto says. "I've read about what crucifixion is like and about what the condemned suffered dying on the cross. It gave me a religious fervor for what Christ suffered and how tortuous it was."
Cueto says that during Lent he prays the five sorrowful mysteries of the rosary to keep God's greatest sacrifice alive.
As if speaking to God, Cueto says: "By meditating on the sorrowful mysteries and the Passion, at least in my heart, you're alive. Even if you're ignored in the secular world, I'm keeping your memory alive."
Cueto has also grown to appreciate the act of fasting and the physical pain of a headache that goes along with it. "If you can't control a little hunger," he asks, "then how can you master other things?" He believes fasting leads to greater self-control and helps people to handle the tough challenges that may arise.
"I can fast for a day if Jesus hung on that cross," he says. "The purpose of crucifixion is to make breathing intolerable. Each breath is agonizing. I almost feel ashamed for not fasting more often."
So instead of dreading Lent, Cueto wonders what life would be like if Christians didn't have Lent each year.
"God shed his mercy on all humanity," he says. "God gave us a tremendous gift of love in Jesus, who was born in a stable and led a simple and humble life."
Imagine you're Jesus
Sandy Solari anticipates Lent each year. She has participated in the stations of the cross since she was very young, and the stations emotionally move her. "Jesus suffered so much, and yet it all led to so much hope," says Solari, a mother, religious education instructor, and former Catholic grade-school teacher from Park Ridge, Illinois. "The stations say that no matter how dark life can be, you can face anything."
The station closest to her heart is the fourth--Jesus meets his mother, Mary. As a mother, she identifies with Mary. She imagines herself as Mary and as Jesus: "I'd feel sadness about not being able to do anything and not being able to carry the cross for him. And I'd imagine Jesus must have felt happy knowing his mother was there to comfort him and sad thinking, 'I can't believe I'm doing this to my mother."'
As a former third- and fourth-grade teacher, Solari was able to pass on her love for the stations. Each Lent she'd have the students draw and color their own stations. Currently as a first-grade CCD teacher, which she has taught for 19 years, she has been confronted with many big concerns from the little ones. She says that children are appalled at how painful Jesus' death was and are upset that Mary had to hold Jesus' body.
"So I tell them that we all have painful things in our lives," she says. "Your mom would do the same for you. She'll be there to support, comfort, and love you."
Solari believes that Lent is difficult for children to understand. In her own family, she doesn't encourage her children to give up something but to do something extra. "We put on ashes and fast, which helps prepare our inner selves," she says, "but more important is doing something--being Jesus for one another."
Find your better self
"Lent is my favorite time of the liturgical year," says Vanessa White. "I like taking time to look at the areas in my life that I need to change. I look at what I have placed as idols in my life instead of God. As the process of Lent goes on, I find myself becoming more aware of God's presence and my need for God."
White, a retreat director at the Christian Brothers LaSalle Manor Retreat Center in Plano, Illinois, believes that Lent offers Christians the opportunity to conduct a social, spiritual, and emotional inventory of themselves and figure out how to strengthen their weak spots.
"It's easy to become like everyone else," she says, "instead of living out a Christian life in this world." During Lent, White examines where her focus has been and reminds herself of what she truly values.
While she used to give up sweets or television programs during Lent, she now tries to give up a behavior that is detrimental to her or to others. "I fast from doing those things that aren't helping me see that Jesus is in each one of us," White says.
After practicing a new, positive behavior for 40 days, White has noticed it becomes more of a habit. "There is enough time for this to become part of your nature," she says. "I'm more conscious of doing good during Lent and find that such conscious behavior will continue."
One behavior she took special care to change was condemning another person through conversation. If people are discussing another person's faults in her presence, she refrains from saying anything or may mention something good that the person has done recently. "When one of us suffers, we all suffer," she says. "And when I was not treating someone kind or when I said negative comments, I was contributing to the suffering."
Another behavior White has changed in an attempt to be kinder to others is her way of responding to criticism. "I used to get defensive, but now I really try to listen and refrain from jumping in to defend myself. Some people I work with have noticed this and comment that I can take criticism."
Each year on Ash Wednesday, White finds herself in church just amazed at how many people have gathered together with her in prayer. "I love the starkness of the season and going for ashes," she says. "It's a humbling experience because you're confronted with your death. People don't have to go to church on Ash Wednesday, but they do. No matter what station we are in life, we're all part of the Body of Christ and in need of continual change and conversion."
Why give something up?
When Ann Weston was little, she associated Lent with not eating meat on Fridays and giving up something that she liked. A deeper understanding of Lent dawned on Weston, a first-grade teacher in Los Angeles, when she began her teaching profession.
"It finally connected when I tried to teach Lent to my students," she says. "I taught them that we gave up something to be reminded that Jesus gave something up."
That simple act of teaching children that Jesus gave up his life out of love for all people struck a deep chord within Weston and brought the events of 2,000 years ago much closer to her heart. "Instead of viewing Lent as a negative time when you can't have something," she now considers it as a block of time to remember and appreciate Jesus' enormous act of love.
Weston says her students appreciate Lent because it's a time of year when the point that Jesus sacrificed himself for all people, including them, is driven home. "The kids feel that they're special and unique children of God. It's a time that they know they're loved by Jesus because he died for them."
During Lent, Weston takes the students through the stations of the cross inside and outside of their California church. They discuss the events at each station, and she changes the phraseology when necessary to something that the youngsters can understand. She also teaches the students a song about Jesus' love for them, and when the end of Lent draws near, they make Easter baskets with crosses on them to help them integrate Jesus' death with his Resurrection.
"As children," Weston says, "they've focused on Jesus as a baby. Lent is a time to help them connect to Jesus as an adult. They ask, 'Why did they murder him?' I tell them it was because he loved us. I teach that it was hard for him and he struggled, but he loved us."
Outside of the classroom, Weston tries to do something during Lent that will improve her life. An example, she says, might be giving up some of her spare time to insert exercise into her life. "Giving up something for Lent is socialized," she says, "and the general population who is Catholic asks you what you've given up."
The best day of the year
Patti Miller's favorite thing to do during Lent is attending Holy Week services. Good Friday is the spiritual highlight of her year.
"On that day I connect with Mary and losing a child," says Miller, a mother and a part-time financial services representative in Cincinnati. "I understand how much was given up for me."
Miller is struck by the great love Mary must have had for Jesus, who died so brutally.
"I can't help but feel horrible as a mom," she says. "I don't know if other moms feel that way."
To Miller, Good Friday is when her faith is strengthened. She cries every year at the services and doesn't feel ready for Easter without going through this process.
She also abstains from eating meat on Fridays during Lent and recalls the year she gave up ice cream for 40 days. "It sounds funny," she says, " but it's one of the hardest thing I've done."
As an adult, Miller has moved from giving things up to trying to do some positive things for Lent. But this hasn't been working for her.
"Believing I was good today or did something to help someone is too vague," she says. "I need to go back to giving something up. That's more cut and dried."
Miller also relies on Ash Wednesday for spiritual nourishment. "My birthday is February 24 and sometimes falls on Ash Wednesday. I am glad when Ash Wednesday is part of my whole birthday celebration."
Miller remembers Holy Thursday as a time when her father would be on the altar participating in the foot-washing ceremony. A wooden cross draped in purple, which she kissed is another of her cherished memories.
"Even as a child, I remember feeling sad and bereft about Jesus' death. I think you have to connect with the sadness to feel the joy of Easter," she says.
"Some people think Easter's just a day to make a ham. I hope my kids are getting the true message of Lent."
Break a bad habit
During Lent Ed Wucker used to abstain from eating chocolate and desserts, but now he spends the Lenten season reading religious magazines, trying to be more patient, and working on ways to rid himself of bad habits. Included on Wucker's Lenten bad-habits hit list are seemingly little behaviors that have been impossible to get rid of. Wucker believes that by eliminating undesired habits or developing positive habits, he moves down a path of greater self-control and self-discipline.
After living a lifetime with a habit he could not break, he was determined to conquer it once and for all during Lent. "I have tried to stop nail-biting many times," says Wucker, an alumni relations officer at Marquette University in Milwaukee. "Previous times I tried and failed. I'd always go back." But he did not go back after last Easter had come and gone.
"Perhaps it was greater determination to succeed after trying and failing so many other times and not necessarily because it was Lent, but the fact that it was Lent may have provided more focus," he says.
Wucker believes that both giving up and doing things for Lent are important. "The pendulum swings," he says, "but if you give up something, and then don't do anything positive to replace it, that's not enough."
Wucker remembers hearing stories about long-ago Lents when his ancestors, who worked for 12 hours a day doing physical labor, would fast and eat just one meal a day. And as a former seminarian, he recalls "observing Good Friday to the nth degree." Today he finds it jarring when some school children get the day off for Good Friday and look at it as an opportunity to go the movies or play basketball.
Each year as Lent closes, Wucker savors the rewards of this particular cycle of the church. "Lent leads to rebirth," Wucker says. "When Lent is over, the rejoicing, the bells, and the glories return. Easter is a feast of rebirth in nature and ourselves."
Take the road to faith
Karol Belak, a retired high school and college Spanish teacher in New York, believes he was part of a miracle last year. "After this I'm more sure of my faith than ever," he says. Belak is referring to the vacation he and his wife took to Jerusalem. They left with some curiosity but with no major expectations. But walking down the Via Dolorosa, the way of the cross in the Holy Land--the actual path that Jesus took--filled his eyes with tears.
"You go there, and you eliminate 2,000 years," he says. Whether he stood where Christ was beaten or near where Christ was betrayed, "when you're there, you feel like you're the historical person," says Belak. "I had the feeling I was Peter in that moment. You feel like you're betraying Jesus, just as we betray him everyday."
Belak says this trip has forced him to meditate on his faith not only during Lent but through the entire year. In a world that emphasizes physical and material pleasure, Belak gives thanks for the spiritual pleasure he and his wife experienced after they boarded the airplane for Jerusalem.
Wherever a person goes in the Holy Land, Belak says, "you see Muslims praying and Jewish people crying at the Wailing Wall. No matter what your faith is, it is all there. Wherever you go, people are praying to God. It has to influence you."
As the above stories show, Catholics in the U.S. live out the 40 days of Lent in their own ways. Each has chosen a path that will sort out the meaning of the dying and rising of a man who loved all people. Year after year, the faith of many Catholics grows stronger as they rediscover the events of 2,000 years ago.
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|Author:||McGovern, Sue Fox|
|Date:||Mar 1, 1997|
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