I’m taking classes in Albany, which means I take I-90 twice a week. If you’ve driven on the highway recently, you will notice a sign that says:
I didn’t think much of it at first. It did remind me of The Last of the Mohicans:
But the more I saw it, the more I thought about it. This is like Lent: Stay awake, stay alive.
I haven’t been very motivated this Lent. I think I might be a Lenten fail. Sure, I’m going to Mass, abstaining on Fridays and I even went to a Penance Service. But life has been busy and chaotic, as I’m sure you probably relate. Life is on a day-to-day basis, getting things done. Check. Most of my prayers have had a “Help me!” theme. I tried to give up worrying for Lent but gave up. Now I’m worrying about worrying. Not exactly what God had in mind, I think. So I ask myself: What is Lent supposed to be like for me this year? Cuz so far, this ain’t it.
The Jesuit in me thinks this sign might have something to do with it. Stay awake. Stay awake to God. All God wants is to be close to me, to all of us. God reaches out to us many times throughout the day, whether we notice or not. We are never absent from God, unless we turn away from God ourselves. I can’t seem to find the author, but I have a prayer I say often that goes, ” My beloved and generous God, I repent of all my sins of blindness to your daily thousand-and-one visits and all the countless gifts you send my way.” Stay awake to the hope, love and surprises God has in store. This can only be good. Pay attention (and I’m mainly talking to me but cool beans if it helps you too) to the blessedness in life. It’s there.
And it’s life-giving. Stay alive to it. I get caught up in the check lists and getting things done, but there is beauty in the lost moments. Even concentrating too much on the chatter in my head closes me off to the reality of God revealing Godself in the day. Stay alive to the possibility that God might show up. Whether I like it or not, God just may know better than I do. Life is not supposed to be a game we have already figured out on our own; it’s just meant to be played. Stay alive to the idea that God is ever present. It’s why Jesus came to live with us. He died so we could stay alive to what God has in store for us: life in abundance!
Or maybe I’m just not supposed to be falling asleep at the wheel. But I think I’m going with this instead. Dear Lord, Help me, and all of us, stay awake and alive to your presence with us as we walk our Lenten journeys. Amen
My family and I go camping a lot. The best part is at the end of the day when we have a fire and cook s’mores. My husband Chris taught our kids to hold their marshmallows just over the fire so they toast into warm, brown, sugary heaven. I prefer to burn mine. I like the whole marshmallow to be burned to a crisp. I blow it out, strip the marshmallow of its blackened skin and then burn it again. I get sticky, ash-y remains in the corners of my mouth. I love it.
Now that it’s Lent, we are reminded of ashes. Usually there is a more somber tone with Lenten ashes than marshmallow ones. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust, and all that. Job in the Bible was a big fan of ashes; he liked to sit in them and lament his woes. Maybe ashes don’t have to be all about suffering and sadness, though. Ashes do have a hope about them…a soft sweetness.
Ashes are transformative. Whatever the thing was before is now changed. The thing isn’t what it was and cannot go back; it has a new reality. Ashes can be good. They nourish the soil. Sometimes fields are purposefully burned to bring new life to them. I know I prefer an ashen marshmallow way more than a fresh one. It has a deeper, sooty taste. Maybe the bitterness balances the sweet.
Ronald Rolheiser says some Aboriginal communities had a tradition where a person would need to spend time sitting in the ashes. It was healing. It was work for the soul. After taking this time in the ashes, the person would wash them off and return to the routine of their life, refreshed. Even if not refreshed, then changed in some way. Transformed.
It feels like a lot of people I know are struggling lately. Bad things happen – and just when you think you can’t take another thing – another bad thing happens. It’s like being covered in ashes. Sometimes, all we can do is just sit in them for a while. And when we are ready, with God’s help, we can wash them off and be changed by them. Transformed.
I’m not saying we should go looking for a pile of ashes to jump into. Ashes, like all suffering, seem to find us. I just wonder if it’s okay to be in them sometimes. And when we are, we could grow and be re-made from the experience. Like fire to a marshmallow, maybe we’ll be even better afterwards. What do you think?
While we celebrate St. Patrick with music, dancing, corned beef, cabbage and beer, it’s good to know the conversion of body and soul that marked the teenaged Patrick forever as a follower of Christ.
Patricius, the Latin name given him in Roman-ruled Great Britain, marked him as an aristocratic boy. He tells in a letter he wrote late in his life, “My father was Calpornius, a deacon of the Church, and my grandfather was Potitus, a priest. His home was in the village, but he also had a country estate nearby.” The young Patrick clearly grew up “churched,” knowing prayers and practices, but according to this letter he had little interest in God, commandments, or other people’s needs. He considered himself agnostic, wanting only to be wild and free. “I was just a teenager, a tongue-tied lad…before I knew what I really wanted, or what I’d be better avoiding.”
Then one night at the family estate, he was awakened by pirates who bound, gagged, and kidnapped him to be sold as a slave across the sea in Ireland. His new master needed a shepherd to spend hours on a cold, rainy or snowy hillside. The boy was fed just enough to survive. The cold and loneliness of his new life brought tears and trembling.
“It was here the Lord touched my unbelieving ways. I thought over my past negligence and then gave my heart and soul to him as my God…He could see for himself how totally mixed up I was, and took pity on me in my immaturity. He kept me out of harm’s way, giving me a bit of confidence, and building me up as only a father can.”
Patrick fasted as a way to come closer to God. He sang psalms and prayers he’d learned in childhood – 100 each morning and again each evening, yearning to reach God’s ear. One night, after 6 long years, he heard in his sleep, “You are doing right by fasting. Soon you will be on your way back to your home country.” He awoke full of hope.
“God used the time to shape and mold me into something better – someone different from what I once was, someone who can care about others and work to help them. Before I was a slave, I didn’t even care about myself.”
Soon after he heard again, “Go your boat is waiting.” He had no idea where to go but walked about 200 miles. “I went in the power of God who led me in the right path every step of the way, so that I was afraid of nothing and at last found that boat…I was undeserving, but God was so generous in his grace.”
He did find his way home and began studies for the priesthood. Years later he heard a different dream-like voice asking, “Holy Boy, come back to us.” As one, the Irish people were summoning him back to share his faith. He had learned of forgiveness and desired nothing more than to return to teach about God the Father, God’s son, and the Holy Spirit who had been his guide.
Great lessons for Lent, whatever your age.
Freeman, Philip. ST. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.
McCormack, C M. St Patrick: The Real Story as Told in His Own Words. Dublin: Columba Press, 2008.