March rain pelted the windows as the cantors chanted the ancient but timely command (see Joel 2:12-16):
Call an assembly.
Gather the people.
Proclaim a fast.
Lent had begun.
I settled into the incense and the season with a deep sigh, ready to step once again into this time of unburdening, ready to make room—some space for grace, as it were.
Why did I have to wait for this day to shed my life of excess? And what was I going to leave behind? It used to be easy: sweets, pop, or the movies. Then one year, I realized that I was looking forward to Lent to go on a diet . . . uh, oh.
So there I sat in the pew, trying to find the thing that needed to go to create an opening, a pathway for the Holy One to fill. The year before I had renounced complaining. Pure torture, but by the end of Lent, my usual mouthy self was mostly mum.
Now, as much as I tried to brush it away, "fear" kept coming to mind. It just didn't make sense; I was no shrinking violet. I stood in line for ashes, begging the Lord for another word, another vice to toss. None came.
Okay, fear it was—how lame.
And so began a Lenten journey full of frustration and introspection. The fear that I didn't know was there nipped and pecked at me for day after endless forty days.
Fear Not? Looking into Scripture, I found "Fear not nor be dismayed" repeated again and again. Webster's Dictionary defines dismay as a breaking down of courage, agitation of mind. I had much more of this than I had ever realized, and it surfaced everywhere. My husband's plane was late: My hands froze to the steering wheel as I sat in the parking lot imagining the worst. I was asked to help out on a committee at church: Overly committed but fearful of wagging tongues and raised eyebrows, I said yes. An unexpected phone call raised the hair on my neck and tied me in knots.
It didn't get better. My tummy grumbled when I fasted from food, but fasting from fear created a grumbling in my being that was almost constant. I discovered that I depended on fear and leaned on it for a crazy kind of comfort. If I had a sense of fear and panic about a situation, I had noticed, it was most often unfounded and everything worked out fine. And so, fear had become a way to ward off setbacks and keep my world working well. It was part and parcel of who I was.
It isn't easy to leave some of yourself behind. St. Gregory the Great, evidently speaking from experience, left us his opinion on the process: "Perhaps it is not after all so difficult for a man to part with his possessions, but it is certainly most difficult for him to part with himself. To renounce what one has is a minor thing; but to renounce what one is, that is asking a lot" (Homilies on the Gospels).
Love Is Stronger. So I did what Lent leads us to do and sought strength in prayer and Scripture. When I had just about given up the fight and figured that I was going to spend the rest of my life dismayed, I read a gospel passage and felt that the Lord himself was standing there saying, "Now, Tina, fear is useless; what is needed is trust . . . " (Luke 8:50, NAB, 1970 edition—without the Now, Tina).
As usual, I had fallen into the strange notion that my Lenten fasting was about doing something for God. But I was just making space for God to do something for me. "Perfect love drives out fear" (1 John 4:18), and he who is love was casting out the fear within me.
Where had it come from, this fear? I got that answer too. In the mail came a packet from a monk who gives me wonderful insights into life, both comic and serious. Among all the quotes, articles, poems, and cartoons was a postcard from a Japanese monastery. On one side, a picture of a meditation garden: rocks and raked sand. A note on the opposite side read: "Less control, Tina!"
Aha! I had been limping along through life and Lent with the idea that I was in charge. I was afraid of losing control. Laughing at my presumption, I was ready to give it up—gladly, with thanks to the One who holds my life in his hands.
Just like candy on Easter morning, fear sneaks back in. Since that Lenten lesson, though, I can recognize it quickly and turn to trust.
One day soon, the cantors will call an assembly and welcome me to another fast of the faithful, the gift of Lent. Again, may I come to the great feast of Easter with less of me and more of the One who loves me. n
Tina Brennan and her husband live in the Seattle area. Their seven children inspired Tina's book, Sacred Gifts: Extraordinary Lessons from My Ordinary Teens (St. Mary's Press).