Madonna House

What’s Not to Love?

by Cheryl Ann Smith

I love Lent. In fact, it’s my favorite liturgical season. Yes, Christmas is more important, as we celebrate the beauty of Light and Love coming to dwell with us in our darkness—darkness intensified by our own sin. And of course Easter is the liturgical pinnacle of the year, celebrating Christ’s victory over that darkness.

So why is a penitential season my favorite? I’m no ascetic. All too often, cookies find their way into my mouth before I remember it’s Lent. And giving up our in-house Saturday popcorn and video evening really does bite. So again—why is Lent my favorite season?

Born in “old Russia,” that is, Pre-Revolutionary Russia, Catherine Doherty, the founder of Madonna House, taught us to “breathe with both lungs” of our Christian heritage.

From the East come powerful and poignant Lenten prayers and music in which we cry out ceaselessly, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” “Lord, help me to see my own faults and not those of others.” “Lord, restore me to your likeness.” 

As we choose to lay aside some of our usual distractions, pleasures, and pursuits in Lent, we begin to hear this cry welling up from the core of our being. For is that not the deepest longing of every human heart—to know God, and to know that we swim in his tender, all-consuming love? We were made for this love relationship.

And yet we run from it. Ashamed of our sins, betrayals, and infidelities, we hide from God. We desperately want to make ourselves worthy and acceptable before facing him, yet we cannot. We fear our inner emptiness; we fear condemnation, and so we work, play, distract ourselves every moment of the day.

…until, like the prodigal son (Lk 15:11-32), we come to our senses and cry out, “Lord help me! I am dying inside! It is my fault, my responsibility, my sin. But I belong to you. I want to be with you. Bring me home!”

This is why I love Lent. This interior journey brings us to the truest, most honest place in our being. And like the prodigal son, we are met not only with forgiveness, but with the astonishing sight of God running towards us, even more anxious for our reunion than we have been.

Although it may feel like we have “left home” and squandered the gifts of prayer and faith that God has lavished on us, he never left our home. Make your home in Me as I make Mine in you (Jn 15:4), Jesus pleaded. He always has and always will make His home in our heart.

And what is more: when we finally realize that all our efforts can never make us perfect or blameless, and in fact, they can get in the way by keeping the focus on ourselves … when all we have left is our desire and need for God—then we can enter and abide in our interior home. And then he can love and serve through us with no impediment.

Think of Peter, who truly loved the Lord, but who could not withstand the terror and nightmare of his Friend’s Passion. Imagine the sorrow and shame in his heart as he met the eyes of the Risen Lord. But what did he see? Love, forgiveness and—trust!

Jesus invited Peter to love with His heart, and to carry on His work: Feed my sheep(Jn 21:15-17).

Lent invites us on that journey from forgetfulness to utter surrender to God in our need, to abiding in him so that we can truly love and serve others. What’s not to love?