by Father Mark Goldasich
“Comfort, give comfort to my people, says the Lord.”
These words from the Book of Isaiah (40:1) have been a tremendous comfort to me, especially since these first few days of Lent have been rough. Despite meticulous planning, I’ve yet to accomplish all my daily Lenten resolutions. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve done something; it’s just that I haven’t done everything.
Sadly, it’s not just because “the flesh is weak.” The “spirit” hasn’t been too willing either. Maybe that’s understandable, given this lingering pandemic and the anxiety of the war in Ukraine. Add in all the stresses of everyday life, and the mix can be draining and overwhelming.
Pages 7-9 of this issue highlight some of the devastating effects of the pandemic on children, and it’s scary. And even though we have more wherewithal and life experience, adults, too, have been battered by the lockdowns, isolation and other fallout from COVID-19.
I’ve even read recently where some people in these last two years gave up Lent for Lent. They figured that the restrictions of the pandemic were certainly penance enough and there was no need to embrace the traditional Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Enough is enough!
While I can certainly understand this sentiment, I’d suggest that it’s better to lean into, rather than run away from, the season of Lent. Although it’s certainly a season of penitence, there’s meant to be a deep sense of comfort underlying it as well.
This story, told by Greg Asimakoupoulus, clarifies what I mean. Based on a letter written by two Christian missionaries working during a recent conflict in the Middle East, it reads:
“The result of the fighting and killing has left a profound sense of discouragement that hovers over the country. Several times, we have come into closer contact with this conflict than our comfort zone allowed.
“Yesterday, a friend said she was watching a shepherd caring for his flock near the area where guns are fired. Every time the shots rang out, the sheep scattered in fright. The shepherd touched each of them with his staff and spoke calmly to them, and the sheep settled down because they trusted the shepherd. Then another shot sounded, and the same routine happened. Each time, the sheep needed the shepherd to orient them again and to reassure them they were safe.” (Taken from “A Shepherd’s Comfort,” found in “1001 Illustrations That Connect,” edited by Craig Brian Larson and Phyllis Ten Elshof.)
I don’t know about you, but I sure need the touch of the Shepherd. As our hearts and spirits are scattered by this crazy world we live in, we can all use a season like Lent where the Shepherd can “reorient us again” through our Lenten disciplines and “reassure us that we are safe.”
One of the penances I suggest to people in confession often brings a look of surprise, especially in this season. Sometimes, I get the sense that they expect some harsh (and bizarre) penance like kneeling on unpopped popcorn kernels in a corner for 10 minutes or holding a Bible in each of their outstretched arms for a half-hour.
Instead, I ask them to call to mind a favorite comforting Scripture passage or prayer and regularly calling that to mind, especially when feeling anxious or discouraged. Among the favorites that people have shared with me are Psalm 23, the parable of the prodigal son or the Memorare.
Rather than a time to batter us down, Lent is instead a season to lift us up to experience the forgiveness, love and comfort of the Shepherd who definitely has, as Pope Francis says, “the smell of the sheep” on him.
By the way, my “comfort passage” comes from Psalm 34, Verse 19: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; and those who are crushed in spirit, he saves.” Indeed, God is, and God does.