I love Lent. I never really acknowledged it until college, when my Jesuit Catholic campus (Go Marquette!) introduced me to the Catholic style of this rich tradition. I found so much spiritual growth in Catholicism during my four years at Marquette, with Lent playing a major role in that. My first Ash Wednesday Mass was breathtakingly beautiful. It gave me a sense of peace like nothing I’d experienced before. Have you ever felt so much peace that you feel like you’ve somehow transcended away from earth? A kind of peace that makes you feel totally and completely safe and secure? That’s what that first Mass felt like. It was as if I’d reached perfect harmony with God himself, and my spirit was at rest.
Maybe that sounds dramatic, but it’s what I felt. You can imagine why I find so much value in Lent after having an experience like that. That sense of peace and harmony I felt is what I imagine Heaven is like, and I felt honored to get a glimpse of it. That was two years ago, and last year I had the same experience at Ash Wednesday Mass, and then again this year. I’m hoping it’s a tradition now!
Lent for me is a time of rest and rejuvenation. It’s a special time of year that feels sacred. Holy. Divine. It’s a time for my spirit to be lifted as I hand it over to the Lord. This year, that rings especially true, as I recognize the tiredness that my soul and my body feel. It’s an intentional time of year for fasting, sacrifice, reflection and renewal.
I’ve had the absolute privilege to meet with a spiritual director monthly during my time here in Philly, and it has been the most life-giving experience. Sueihn is an amazing spiritual director and has been doing wonders for me in my spiritual journey and being a guide along the way. Last month when we met, we talked a lot about Lent and my experience with it. At the time, I was preparing for Ash Wednesday Mass and working on setting my intentions for Lent. I shared with her how this season has meant so much to me these past couple of years, and how, in a way, I felt a lot of pressure this year to make it just as good of an experience as it has been before. Through tears, I shared with her what I will now share with all of you: I’ve felt like a fake Christian for awhile now. Growing up as the “church kid,” I committed my life to Christ at a young age and flourished in my faith through high school. I was actively involved in youth group, volunteering in children’s ministry, and serving as a stage manager during services on Sundays. I headed to college with high spirits, ready to be “on fire for Jesus” and see my spiritual life thrive.
For awhile, it did. I became actively involved in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a community that became my home at Marquette. The people there were incredible and I formed close relationships with. I am forever grateful for them and to call so many of them friends. I worked at the Christian camp I grew up in for my first two summers of college, and then worked as an intern with Christ in Youth, the conference I attended through high school that dramatically impacted my faith. But despite doing all of these things, on top of keeping up with daily devotions, Bible reading, prayer, etc., I wasn’t feeling the fire of Jesus like I once did. It seemed the more I desperately clung onto this faith, trying not to let it slip from my tired, worn-out hands, the faster it was fading.
“What if people knew? What if they can tell I’m not ‘really’ feeling Jesus? What if they call me out for being a fraud?” These questions plagued me constantly in my last two years of college. Especially as I served on the leadership team of my InterVarsity chapter and discerned my own call to ministry, the fear that it was all unravelling would not escape me. I felt an intense pressure to keep up the act and not let my sputtering flame of faith die. I tried “laying it at Jesus’ feet,” only to realize I didn’t know how to. That language wasn’t connecting with me anymore, leaving me carrying around a burden that I couldn’t seem to put down, as much as I desired to. My prayers became less eloquent and more pitiful as I asked, “God? Where are you?”
In the midst of all of this, two things happened. Lent and the Milwaukee Urban Program (MUP). You all have already heard about what an amazing experience MUP was in how it opened up my eyes to justice and the ways God cares about it and invites us into it (reference my blog post here). It’s arguably the reason I’m here in Mission Year today! That year was also my first year partaking in Lent. By the absolute miraculous power of God, I felt pulled to participating in both Lent and in MUP. It was spring of my junior year, and my soul was exhausted. Lent seemed like a cool new experience, and thankfully I am always in search of new experiences, so I gave it a try. Alongside some Catholic friends, I walked into that first Ash Wednesday Mass. And the rest is history.
Today I continue to grapple with my faith, but I’ve finally come to realize it’s never going to be the same as it was before. Sueihn helped me understand this by explaining that what I was experiencing was a “growing pains” of sorts in my faith. She said she believes this is essential to every Christian’s journey, and that it offered the opportunity to shape your faith and deepen your relationship with God in a radical way. “Your faith won’t look the same as it used to. It’ll look different,” she said, “But the hope is, that ‘different’ is a deeper, richer, more authentic faith. God hasn’t abandoned you; He’s pushing you.”