The Desert Teaches us True Desire

AS A CHILD, I THOUGHT of Lent as my favorite Season of the Church’s Liturgical Year. Obviously, I would have never been able to formulate that description when I was seven or eight, but I do remember being so totally immersed in the oddness of Lent. My mother was a bit strict about our observance, having carried from her childhood a far more traditional understanding of the holiness of the season. Case in point: my brother and I were not allowed to watch any “non-religious” tv shows during our holy observance, and when Holy Week came along, it was considered a mortal sin in our house to sneak peak at our comic books (which was especially difficult for my brother and I, since we collected them like the Eagles collected decades before their first Super Bowl victory). Video games were even worse. During Ash Wednesday and Holy Week, anything other than EWTN or religious movies was anathema. Come to think of it, I never fully recovered from associating Charlton Heston from my personal experience of faith.

There was something very familiar about Lent. Every Friday, I knew we were going to have fried fish seasoned by Mrs. Dash. I already knew which programs between our 20 channels were permitted for entertainment, and which ones were just not Jamesson-approved. I also knew that for the next 40 and some odd days I would have to suffer the excruciatingly long services and Masses that periodically appeared out of nowhere to chastise me even more. I’d have to bear the humiliating large ash-marks on my forehead at school, while all my clean-headed classmates gloated at me and laughed. I was like Nia Vardalos in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” recalling her lunch room shame of having “Moose ka-ka” in her lunch box, or like Ralph Macchio, when he was the only dark-haired Italian boy in all blonde California in the movie “Karate Kid.”

I was, ahem, Matt Jamesson, the Catholic. Never mind the pinned medals of Mary or of angels that would appear on my clothes or backpacks, or the large brown scapular that she made me wear every day. As if we weren’t weird enough, let’s please place a large black dust bomb on my forehead in the middle of the school week, in case someone else missed the point. My mother never failed at making sure I knew my identity. And it worked.

There is something about the physicality of Catholic traditions – the sacramentality of it all – that grants everyday mundane things a transformative energy capable of making a little boy grimace at normal easy things. The desert is not a scary place, it is the great adventure of the heart. The strange sacrifices both in body and my ego made me realize how connected I was to something deeper, richer, more mysterious. In fact, these pious practices were so engrained in my imagination, that I first considered becoming a priest shortly after my Confirmation at the age of 12 and during the season of Lent. Heaven wasn’t just a fun idea in a book (cool story, bro), it was everywhere around me – I could smell it in the kitchen on Fridays, just like I could smell it in the church during those very smoky days of the Triduum. I heard it in the bells of the church and from the silence on my tv. I saw it in the stations of the cross every Friday and in the fingers pointing at me in the playground on Ash Wednesday. I tasted, and I felt, all that heaven could grant my 5 little senses to help teach me about my true home. Lent was the greatest teacher in the lesson of desire I have ever received.

I worry about the generation of children who no longer know what it means to be bored. Boredom helps the imagination grow – it is the gymnasium of the mind’s playtime. When one adds the elements of the Lenten season, with its rituals both in and out of church services and the little sacrifices we make through fasting and almsgiving, sacrifices which play sonnets to our ego, this playground becomes a seed-bed for the Gospel. In the silent stillness when the business of ordinary life is shoved to the side like the idol that it is, we can hear the strong roots of the seed, the Kingdom, begin to grow and whisper, “The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.

You see, what I learned early on that I often forget as an adult is how the Lenten season is not about how great “I” make this season happen, or about how “I” should grant meaning to the season of Lent. Lent-ing correctly is rather the opposite. Lent gives me the opportunity to do nothing – to not be so consumed with making sure I’m always comfortable, or how well I’m performing at work, or how perfect I am at looking like a Christian. It is the doing nothing and the being who I am in Christ that is the harder task. It is always a good thing to do good, but a far nobler thing to just be – mainly, to be a child of God.

In preparation for this coming holy Lenten Season, the Church asks us, “what is the one thing or what are the things that I can lay aside for the next month-and-a-half that will enable me to take just one step closer to hearing the still and silent voice of God in an otherwise very crowded and very noisy portion of the God-shaped desert in my heart?” That is, pay attention to the God who made you, and shove to the side anything else that seeks to distract you from this one noble and simple truth: this same Creator is really Father, and this Father loves you. How far will you permit our Father to take you to your deserted places and to transform them this holy season?

— Fr. Matt Jamesson