A year ago I sat in pretty much the same spot I am right now (my big, brown comfy chair) and pondered what I should give up for Lent. This would be my first real attempt at Lent because I wasn’t raised in a household that observed Lent or any religious traditions beyond Christmas and Easter and those were just an excuse to exchange presents and eat chocolate bunnies.
My first Lenten experience didn’t feel like I “gave up” anything. I was still going through RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) and spending lots of time in prayer deciding if I should become Catholic. This time was filled with parish mission services, soup dinners with special speakers, and the Stations of the Cross. These were all new and exciting things to be a part of. But most importantly I received a new understanding of the relationship I could have with God, if I would allow Him to truly be a part of my life. It seemed I had gained so much during this time of self-denial and penance. But what had I given up? Wasn’t I supposed to deprive myself of something? Punish myself for the wrongs that I had done? Maybe I had missed the point of Lent.
As I am about to embark on my first Lenten season as a Catholic woman, my notion of what this season means has been completely transformed. Lent is not about giving up chocolate or wine or swear words for 40 days only to return to these things on Easter Sunday. It is also not a time to punish myself for every transgression I’ve ever committed. This time is about conversion. A time to turn away from sin (the things that take me away from God) and turn back to Him. A time to go into the desert, into the wilderness, into the darkness and wait expectantly for God. To venture into the wilderness, there are aspects of my life that must change. Things I need to “give up” to hear God’s voice. After much prayer and an attempt to bargain myself into a “doable” sacrifice, I was left with the only thing that brought peace. It was total and complete. Will it be hard? Absolutely! Will I slip up? Probably. But I trust when I come to God with a contrite heart and ask for forgiveness, he will forgive me, pick me up, and set out with me once again. Will I share it on my blog? Not this year. 🙂
As the darkness begins to surround me, I believe that God will draw close and guide me until the light returns.
Thanks to MD for the beautiful photo!
Part 2, Monday, August 6, 2007
One of the outreach programs at Ludzi Parish is to provide medicines to HIV/AIDS patients in surrounding villages. Some of the villages are within walking distance and on this day our group went to visit one of them. Children swarmed around us as we walked though all of the huts. Sister Agnes took us to one of the huts where a mother of three lay on a thin mat barely able to move. Her skin looked like it would tear if touched. The sounds of her children playing seemed to float in through the openings between the sides and roof of the hut- swirling around her ravaged body.
Sister Agnes explained that the mother was HIV-positive but AIDS symptoms had been held off because of medication. All of her children were HIV-negative because she took the proper drugs to ensure she would not pass the virus on to them during pregnancy or delivery. The woman gave a weak smile when Sister Agnes called her a, “Good Mother.” I wondered why she was so sick if she took the drugs to help keep the HIV under control. Sister Agnes let us know that because there has been such a focus on getting HIV-type drugs that many other more common drugs, like penicillin, are in short supply. So now you may not die of HIV or AIDS, but a curable illness like pneumonia. I felt sick. This mother that had loved her children enough to make sure she got the medication to keep them safe from HIV would be taken away from them because she couldn’t get a $10 antibiotic?
Our priest knelt next to the woman and asked if we could pray with her. The woman nodded slowly. The other women in the group gathered around and placed hands on her shoulder or back or held her hand. But I stood motionless in the corner. I could not approach this woman. It was not because I was afraid I would “catch” something from her. In that moment I had this flash of how “filthy” I was and how “clean” she was. I was afraid to touch her for fear I would infect her with my faithlessness. She needed all the faith possible to get better. I continued to watch from the corner of the hut as the women in the group continued to pray over her. Then a faint, “Amen,” drifted up from the woman’s lips.
All week there had been feelings of faith and love and joy and peace in the midst of poverty and death. But in my own life when faced with poverty and death and divorce and disappointment, I had not been faithful to a God I claimed to serve. My hands trembled in front of me and as the women continued to pray I ducked out the front of the hut.
Friday, August 3, 2007
One of the highlights of the trip for me was the time we would spend in spiritual reflection as a group each day. Before we left New York, our priest, Kate, prepared a schedule with readings for spiritual reflection and who would lead the reflection along with who would lead Compline (evening prayer) for the evening.
We left the boys at Youthcare Ministries to return to the lodge and have spiritual reflection before dinner. Dinner this night turned out not to be fried chicken but a treat at an Indian restaurant.
The power had gone out. It wasn’t until later that evening we learned that power outages would happen again, and they were scheduled each evening. We continued on by candlelight. Krista led the reflection with a text from Henri Nouwen on listening. One of the points Krista made in the beginning was the idea to quiet the chatter in our minds to hear God. The ‘stuff’ of life: the grocery shopping, phone calls, dentist appointments, school functions. Work begins to fill up every quiet place we have in our lives. This chatter becomes a wall and we are unable to hear God’s voice.
We had a lovely dinner and returned to the lodge for Compline and much needed showers and rest. After such a long day, I was ready for a shower and bed, but our room had no hot water pressure. I went to the front desk to ask for a towel, but no one was there. I ended up taking a towel off the clothesline; it was mostly dry.
As I was waiting to take my shower, the tears began to fall. The tears were not only for the children I met and held earlier that day, but also my child, and myself as a child. It is tragic and unfathomable that there is poverty to the level it exists in Malawi or the United States, anywhere on our planet at this time in history. That is really just the most sweeping, generic, truly inadequate description of what I saw throughout the day.
July 24, 2007
My departure is fast approaching! The sleepless nights followed by the 12-hour sleepathons have commenced. My excitement has not waned, but an element of apprehension has crept in. Some of you know about my fear of flying over water, well I guess I will be getting over that fear very soon. I received a package of information from my priest about spiritual reflection and Compline services while we are in Africa. I will be leading spiritual reflection one night. The material she gave me is from Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D. The reading has to do with burnout from the experiences of disappointment and loss. My nature is to care ‘too’ much, become overwhelmed and give up completely. This reading encourages those who care, to grieve loss and disappointments as a way to honor those experiences, heal yourself, and be able to continue the work that you are called to do even when it is painful. The idea of traveling to Africa is so abstract to me at this point. And in the greater sense of my life, why now? What do I need to learn? I pray that God will open my heart and mind to these new experiences and help me discern what is mine to do. Amen. 🙂