21 Mar How I Learned to Love Lent
by Hilde Muller
As a child I dreaded Lent. What was there to love? Ashes on one’s forehead on Ash Wednesday, weeks and weeks of fish sticks on Fridays—and not much more going on in between.
Of course, it didn’t help that Lent usually falls during February and March—two of the coldest and grayest months of the year where I live.
It was always such a relief when we made it to Holy Thursday and the beginning of the Triduum. No more fish sticks on Fridays! No more winter!
It wasn’t until I spent time at Madonna House that my love for Lent began to develop.
I arrived at Madonna House the Monday before Ash Wednesday in 1998. I planned to stay for all of Lent and for the first two weeks of the Easter season.
After my first few days there, I found myself re-evaluating whether I really wanted to stay a full three months. As idyllic as the community sounded, I found it to be a place for wrestling with God, and because of this, it is a place where, in order to stay, one must choose to remain over and over.
At first it seemed that the community and its practices were the source of my angst and discomfort—the schedule of their days leaves very little space to be alone, and one has little choice about what to eat, whether or not to join in the prayer times, or what manner of work to do. One is assigned jobs, and one is expected to participate in all the daily activities.
After one week, I desperately wanted to run away. And yet, I truly believed I had felt the Spirit inviting me to be there. It was a great struggle for me—and yet, I stayed—all the while squirming with deep discomfort.
We were already into Lent at that point—we’d begun with the solemn and familiar Ash Wednesday liturgy—but each morning, as I groggily participated in morning prayer, I was awakening to the words we kept repeating in song and psalm.
Every morning we began prayers by singing an Eastern Rite hymn, “Open to Me the Doors of Repentance.” Then there was Psalm 51 which we read together, Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me …
Then we ended prayers with the Prayer of St. Ephrem, which you pray with your whole body.
Now, if you pray these prayers one day of your life, they are not likely to have much of an effect on you.
But let me tell you, praying them every single day (except for Saturdays and Sundays) for six weeks straight, begins to shake you up a bit. I found that as I entered into these prayers morning after morning, week after week, I actually began to desire that for which I was asking!
Not only that, but I came to feel more and more at peace with the fact that I needed to ask for help. In fact, I felt increasingly free to acknowledge the depths of my own messiness and not to feel so ashamed of it. Ultimately this was the beginning of a monumental shift in how I understand the Christian journey.
Until that time, I believed the Christian journey was about perfecting one’s self—eliminating any thoughts or behaviors that were unseemly or unholy so as to be worthy of God’s presence. But there, with the repetition of these powerful Lenten prayers that acknowledge our sin and messiness, an unraveling began.
That terrible drive to be perfect—which is undergirded by harsh judgment of one’s self and others—began to come undone in me. I began to see that it was a spiritual straight jacket and not at all the stuff of abundant life and freedom.
Real freedom, real peace comes from owning our messiness—but not clinging to it—as we rest in the great sea of God’s mercy which quickly floods our cracks with all-encompassing love.
I discovered that our cracks do not go away. They simply become too full of God’s goodness to matter much.
Not only that, but as those cracks are filled with God’s mercy, they actually become beacons of hope for others—resurrected wounds into which others can place their fingers, as Thomas did with Jesus, and proclaim, “My Lord and my God.”
Not only was I experiencing this shift in myself as the Lenten prayers and songs worked on me day after day, but I began to see that many of the people around me had undergone this sort of transformation.
How could I tell? Because they were people of peace. They laughed loudly and easily, they welcomed strangers, and they were unafraid of the depths of the human heart.
As you may know, one of the many things Catherine Doherty wrote was called “The Little Mandate.” It is a poem-like collection of lines she heard the Spirit whisper to her over the years.
One line of it that calls to me is this: Go without fear into the depths of men’s hearts. At Madonna House I saw that only people who have been to their own depths—and been bathed in the sea of God’s mercy there—can go without fear into the depths of another person’s heart.
Like Christ, one has to be a person acquainted with sorrow and grief, in one way or another, to be a salve for the broken hearts of others.
Because of the time I spent at Madonna House, Lent is now one of my favorite seasons of the year. I look forward to it with quiet anticipation—and I have not been disappointed.
Every year, as I enter into the prayers and practices of Lent, I encounter fresh winds of grace: grace to fearlessly bring my own messiness and sin and the sin of the whole world to the sea of God’s mercy.
I know now that only by frequent bathing in this sea will I become a person who can go without fear into the depths of men’s hearts—and meet again the Lord of life and hope who dwells there.
Hilde and her husband have a large garden, raise chickens and ducks, and own and run a bakery that specializes in sourdough breads. They have three children
Lenten Prayer of St. Ephrem
O Lord, Master of my life, grant that I may not be infected with the spirit of slothfulness and faintheartedness, with the spirit of ambition and vain talking. Prostration
Grant instead to me, your servant, the spirit of purity and humility, the spirit of patience and love. Prostration
O Lord and King, bestow on me the grace of being aware of my sins and of not judging my brother. For you are blessed forever and ever. Amen. Stand
O God, purify me a sinner and have mercy on me. Repeat 3 times with a bow and Sign of the Cross each time. Then kneel.
Yes, O Lord and King, bestow upon me the grace of being aware of my sins and of not judging my brother. Prostration
After each petition, we at Madonna House prostrate our bodies, touching our heads to the floor according to the Eastern tradition. Why do Eastern people prostrate themselves? “Because,” said Catherine, “we have such a sense of who we are and who God is. A Russian prostrates to acknowledge that he is a creature and God is God, and a creature’s proper posture is prone. All ideas of my importance, my greatness, my intellectual or spiritual capacity vanish when I am prostrate, or so we Easterners think.”(from Nazareth Family Spirituality by Fr. Blair Bernard-2013-MH Publications)
Open to Me the Doors of Repentance
An Eastern Lenten Hymn
Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. Open to me the doors of repentance, O Life-Giver, for my spirit rises early to pray towards Thy holy temple, bearing the temple of my body all defiled.* But in Thy compassion, purify me by the loving kindness of Thy mercy. Now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Lead me on the paths of salvation, O Mother of God, for I have profaned my soul with shameful sins and have wasted my life in laziness. But by your intercessions, deliver me from all impurity.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy great mercy, and according to the multitude of Thy compassions, blot out my transgressions. When I think of the many evil things I have done, wretch that I am, I tremble at the fearful day of judgment, but trusting in Thy loving kindness, like David, I cry to Thee:
Have mercy on me, O God.
Have mercy on me, O God.
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to Thy great mercy.
*Some of the words in this hymn can sound Jansenistic and self-hating, but the Eastern Churches emphasize the reality of our sinfulness together with the infinitely greater reality of God’s mercy. This mercy they see, not only as forgiveness but also as a continual outpouring of God’s infinite, unconditional, all-powerful love.
Of course, the Latin Rite Church, too, teaches this, though it centers on it less, and to live in continual awareness of our sinfulness and God’s mercy is to live in peace and freedom.