This morning, on Ash Wednesday 2023, my cat burst through the back door with a bird’s egg in her mouth. She meowed mournfully and proudly dropped it at my feet. We are currently experiencing gale-force winds in Dana Point so I surmise it must have blown out of a nest somewhere nearby although a quick search was not fruitful. Since the egg was still warm and looked undamaged, I wrapped it in some fleece and nestled it in an old china cup. I am not a mother bird but I do have maternal instincts and could not simply deposit it back outside with the ferocity of the wind. Since I had begun writing my blog post on Love and Lent, the timing could not have been better.
Admittedly, I do not, and never have, loved Lent. For years when I worked in ministry, Lent was my busiest season. I often wrote Lenten devotional books that were distributed to the community on Ash Wednesday, so Lent seemed to always arrive early and then felt like being on a fast train speeding toward the Triduum. My plans about the disciplines of prayer, fasting, and giving alms were always in the rearview mirror as I coped with extreme busyness and communal duties. Perhaps like some of you, I once carried the guilt of my shortcomings (aka sins) in my subconscious like Atlas carried the world on his back.
As a child, I was programmed to believe that even fleeting bad thoughts were sinful, of which I had lots. So when told to uber-focus (as the kids today would say) on sin and penance for Lent, I could not see the difference between the liturgical season and any other ordinary time. Yet I dutifully went through the motions, hoping for a lasting cure from my sinful ways in the quick fix of forty days. Sometimes I would make it through the six weeks without a drop of soda or whiff of chocolate. More often, I fell off the wagon and would wallow in regret.
In my teens, I evolved from the magical thinking of childhood and followed the self-improvement path others were touting, a goal I thought more worthy than longing for absolution by giving up candy or television. I would vow to go to mass or say the rosary every day, expunge negative influences, refrain from gossip, trash-talk, and those impure thoughts that bombard every teenager. The trouble was, I could never maintain the momentum for long. Once Easter arrived, I was back to square one. For me, Lent was only a reminder that ever reaching perfection was impossible for the likes of me.
In adulthood, I stopped “doing Lent,” along with practicing my faith. I still celebrated Easter but without the guilt and scruples I had in the past. While I was not conflicted in the same way as before, a sense of emptiness made me seek a different kind of faith that resonated more with the challenges adults face as they mature.
Sometime in midlife, a shift in my consciousness occurred that changed the old Lenten patterns. A spiritual mentor suggested that I “enter the Paschal Mystery” by attempting to see the life-death-resurrection cycle in my daily experiences as well as in the natural world. This, he said, would connect me with the deep, sacrificial love of Christ that is forever holding time and space together. Now that was interesting!
I spent that Lent reading Jesuit Father Teilhard de Chardin, taking nature walks, and “going silent” on pet peeves and political rants. That was also the Lent that I walked with my best friend whose adopted son died by suicide, became a full-time caretaker for my elderly mother-in-law, and faced a blistering family lawsuit. Sacrificial love, as I had never experienced, rose up from without and from within. I carried crosses, died to self a thousand times a day, felt imprisoned in tomb-like depression, but then rose again with help from empathetic friends, uplifting music, meaningful work, and small acts of service. I was astonished to realize that I was personally plunged into the Paschal Mystery. Lent has never been the same since.
I have spent this Ash Wednesday watching the wind wreak havoc in my yard and monitoring the little white bird egg now in my care, thinking about existential fragility. We are made of dust and to dust we shall return. While I have no illusions about cat altruism, I cannot help but wonder why this turn of events happened today of all days. My conclusion? Sacrificial love, around since the Big Bang, according to Teilhard, is always with us, the dizzying force of evolution that has so much energy it may never end, forever binding us to one another, nature, and the cosmos. A seemingly insignificant feline carrying a tiny bird’s egg drew me once again into this beautiful revelation. I can think of no better way to start Lent.