Somehow, the season of Lent sneaked up on me this year. Normally I spend some time in prayer as the Lenten season approaches, to ponder my intentions for these 40 days.
Each year is different.
When I was a Catholic schoolgirl, my siblings and I would give up things we loved for Lent, like chocolate or a favorite TV show. We all knew what the other siblings had given up. In theory that helped us keep each other accountable, but in reality, we would sometimes simply use the knowledge to torment one another, like when I would announce loudly to my sister that I was going to watch the exact show she had been holy enough to give up as her Lenten sacrifice. In retrospect I'm not sure how holy that was of me, even if I avoided eating chocolate all 40 days that year.
I was in the giving up mode for a long time, until I drifted away from the church and gave up my Lenten practice itself. One year, after I had returned to being a regular churchgoer as a young adult in my late 20s, I decided to use the season as an opportunity to clean up my own language. I kept track of the not-so-good words that would still slip out and pledged to give an equal amount of money to our parish food pantry. If I'm honest, it was harder than I thought. I also ended up buying a lot of food for the hungry. Most importantly, the experience made me more mindful of the words I chose in general.
In more recent years, I have been more inclined to take up a positive practice during the Lenten season — such as using nonviolent language or being kind or patient with people who might drive me crazy. Every year around this time, a post pops up on social media listing ways to fast during Lent that are attributed to Pope Francis. For example, fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude. Fast from worries and trust in God. Fast from words so you can be quiet and listen. The list is quite thought provoking. The approach is also a way to integrate the practices of giving up and taking up practices during the Lenten season.
What's important, if we want to engage this holy time as an opportunity to reflect, renew and recommit to our faith, is that we should have some sort of intention going in. Even the most apparently trivial intention — like giving up watching Netflix before bed — can have far reaching consequences, such as more time spent in prayer or with loved ones, or even a better night's sleep.
This is all a big preamble to say … Lent began this year without my having made my Lenten intention.
And yet … as I sat in prayer on Ash Wednesday morning, one word kept coming to me. Beauty.
The seed I think was planted last month on my annual silent retreat, when I spent quite a bit of time in the beauty of God's creation. It was inescapable and pure grace.
The seed was nourished this past Monday, as I joined with the rest of my leadership team at the intensive care unit of the hospital to accompany one of our sisters on her final journey to the heart of God. There was beauty there too, even amid the sadness, in the deep love and connection among her family, community members and friends.
Life can sometimes be so messy that we don't see the incredible beauty of it all. I was reminded recently of a plaque that my friend Susie had hanging in her dining room. It said, "There is no place where God is not" in beautiful calligraphy. Sometimes, however, the way the word "God" was written looked to me more like "Goo." Indeed, there is no place where goo is not, and God is even there in the mess if we but take the time to look.
After my morning prayer on Ash Wednesday, I joined our sisters for Mass at our retirement center. There was beauty in the way the more able-bodied sisters helped those who needed a hand to stay steady. There was beauty in the way the chapel was decorated for Mass. There was beauty in being present together as a community in prayer. There was beauty in the sitting at the table over coffee after Mass, telling well-worn stories and merely enjoying each other's company.
When I received my ashes, the word beauty came to me once again, along with the lyrics of a song by Sara Groves I'd prayed with on retreat – "Add to the Beauty":
It comes in small inspirations, it brings redemption to life and work, to our lives and our work.
It comes in loving community, it comes in helping a soul find its worth
Redemption comes in strange places, small spaces, calling out the best of who we are.
And I want to add to the beauty, to tell a better story, I want to shine with the light that's burning up inside.
This is grace, an invitation to be beautiful.
The invitation for me this Lent, it seems, is to focus on beauty, to add to and look for and create and celebrate beauty amidst all the goo of life. I've been invited to focus on beauty in my work, in loving community, in the challenges and in the blessings. I do believe in the power of redemption, in the awesome continuing work of our creator God, in and through us and yes, even in the most messy bits, when beauty can be harder to see.
My Lenten intention, given to me as sheer grace, is to remember all of this these days and to be an engaged participant in the beauty that surrounds us.
We'll see where this Lenten journey leads.
May you and I be graced with a beautiful Lent.
[Susan Rose Francois is a member of the Congregation Leadership Team for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace. She was a Bernardin scholar at Catholic Theological Union and has ministered as a justice educator and advocate. Read more of her work on her blog, At the Corner of Susan and St. Joseph.]