Each year when Lent rolls around, I watch my Facebook news feed fill with articles and posts about Lent and the discussion about what and whether to give something up for Lent. It always brings me back to my senior at college when at the advice of one of the Jesuits I gave up the Church for Lent.
I was raised in a strong Roman Catholic household. I attended Catholic school from first grade through college (and you will notice that my MTS is from the Jesuit School of Theology). While my family was quite devout - grace before meals, bedtime prayers, Mass every Sunday unless you were sick, they were not rigid. I knew that my parents disagreed with church teaching on birth control and made it clear that my sister and I were quite planned. I was raised on their personal stories of dissent and the use of conscience.
I was also blessed to be raised in the Roman Catholic church as the implementation of Vatican II was happening. I have no memory of the Latin Mass, nuns did not wear full habits at my elementary school, Communion began to be served with both the bread and the wine, my parents were among the first to be trained as lectors and Eucharistic Ministers, and the confessional boxes were converted from dark boxes to lighted ones that gave options for both face to face and behind the screen confessions. The music was the Songs of the St. Louis Jesuits - thank you Dan Schutte and all of you for providing the amazing hymns that to this day move me. Even as a child, I could feel the excitement of a church opening to the world ... a church changing.
I loved going to church - I remember my First Communion vividly and my sense of what an important and sacred moment this was in my life. I took my Confirmation very seriously and was proud to take my place as a full member of the community. I prayed constantly. In the eighth grade I decided instead of giving something up for Lent, I would commit to going to 8 am Mass every day (the advantage of parochial school). I became a lector and Eucharistic Minister while in high school and I was active in my church's youth group.
Yet by the time I got to Georgetown, the church was changing and trying to reverse the changes that Vatican II had brought. There were reinforcements of traditional teachings on birth control, women's ordination and abortion. You could feel the hierarchy of the Church clamping down. I was very active in campus ministry at Georgetown. The Jesuits at Georgetown were part of my amazing support system as I struggled with depression. I discovered my love of theology at Georgetown. I took my first theology class - Introduction to Catholic Theology with Monika Hellwigg. I had no idea that I was taking theology from a prominent and well respected feminist theologian. I loved everything about that class. I was hungry to know the "why" of what I had been raised to believe. Yet why can be the most dangerous question there is. With why came the realization that much of what is the practice of the church came not because of thoughtful discernment of God's will and what was best for humanity but rather petty politics, greed and a lust for power and control.
Throughout my college years, my faith underwent a transformation. It was no longer the faith of a child. I had doubts, I didn't know if I could remain Roman Catholic. At the heart of my struggle was that I could not accept that a small group of men in Rome could dictate faith to the entire world. My struggle was not over specifics of women's ordination, birth control or the myriad of other issues - rather it was with the whole hierarchy itself. As a child my father would say to me repeatedly as if it were a given fact like the world was round, the sky is blue, "Margaret, the Church is not a democracy" and inside I was quietly thinking..well maybe it should be.
So during my senior year of College I was struggling with all of this. I had been talking about whether or not I needed to leave the Church. So finally the Jesuit I had been confiding in suggested that I take a break from the Church and it was right around the start of Lent. So that Lent, I did not go to Church. Now please understand that I was not just a Sunday only Mass attender. I often attended weekday Mass - 11:15 pm in St. Mary's chapel along with Sunday Mass. So for me to suddenly say I was giving up the Church was no small feat.
So I gave up the Church for Lent and it was hard. I missed the liturgy, I missed singing, I missed receiving Communion. So I went back to Church on Easter Vigil, still one of my favorite services (whether Roman Catholic or Episcopal). It was wonderful to be back. I still had doubts but for now I was not leaving.
Of course the story does not end there. I did finally leave the Roman Catholic Church, I became an Episcopalian and then eventually a Unitarian Universalist. Yet I will always be grateful to that wise Jesuit who encouraged me to take the break I needed, to try out leaving. For not condemning me or saying I had no other options. I would hope more people would find religious leaders as supportive of their spiritual journeys as I did among the Jesuits.
However you celebrate, or not, Lent this year, I hope it is a meaningful and true spiritual practice. May it help you wrestle with your faith. May the holy break through in new and profound ways.
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