by Linda Zimmerman
My mother woke me early to get ready for church. It was Ash Wednesday 1963.
At Christ the King Church, I remember that the priest talked about the solemn purpose of Lent. He explained it as a time when Catholics traditionally follow three Lenten practices: prayer, self-denial and almsgiving.
As a second-grader, I vaguely knew what those words meant. But I had questions, especially about almsgiving. During the service, the congregation was blessed one by one, receiving ashes on their foreheads before moving quietly into their day.
As I approached my school classroom, three uneasy thoughts came to me. First, I am going to need to give something up for the next 40 days (what, no chocolate for 40 days?!). Second, how will I explain the ashen cross on my forehead? I was sure my classmates would think it — and me — weird. And third, I needed to find out soon what in the world almsgiving was all about. I didn’t want to forget something and regret it.
Well over 40 years later, I still remember my childhood fears and confusion during Lent. Today as I sat in contemplation, I asked for the grace for an open heart. What emerged were visions of myself through my 8-year-old eyes. I noted how I had been guided, molded and shaped in ways I could not have imagined. I wondered in amazement how my path had been made straight, despite the uneven and unbalanced life I had lived.
An immense gratitude washed over me, and I heard His comforting voice, “Be not afraid, my child, let go of your fears and cling to me.”
Over the years, I heeded that call and set aside my fears and clung tightly to Him. I allowed myself to be continually stretched and lengthened. In time, opportunities for a more robust prayer life emerged, and I developed a thirst for the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.
As Lent approaches this year, I once again place myself at His worn and dusty feet, feeling His warmth and love. I am able to see how my spiritual life has shifted once more. In fact, it has become my life! And in gratitude, I acknowledge that my childhood thoughts of Lent have grown up and matured as I have grown up and matured.
Prayer, self-denial and almsgiving, once shrouded in fear and mystery, are now woven into the very fabric of my being. My prayer life has become a fruitful two-way conversation of sharing and listening in the silence, allowing myself to be transported into His life, to look into His eyes, and to feel what He might be feeling.
The self-denying practice of giving up chocolate has been replaced by appeals to the Holy Spirit for the humility to recognize and let go of the behaviors and thoughts that block me from clinging to Him.
I have been gently guided to a way of neutral living — knowing I am enough, I have enough. I can give in abundance while being of maximum usefulness to Him. That is almsgiving.
Linda Zimmerman is the regional director for IVC Syracuse. She shared a prayer for Lent, which you can read here.