Finding living water in the desert of Lent

When I think of Lent, I think of self-denial, misery and general suffering often made manifest in cold showers and dessert-less meals. After the indulgence of the Christmas season, and perhaps the recognition of how weak we are when it comes to keeping our already-broken New Year’s resolutions, many of us are eager to embrace an ascetical practice for the 40 days leading to Easter. The idea of wandering with Jesus in the desert, resisting temptation and suffering for the kingdom of God is always appealing to me as Ash Wednesday approaches.

Yet, I know how short-lived my ambitious plans for Lent often are as the parched desert landscape quickly gets old. When there is another morning of scraping ice off my car, the reality of not getting enough sleep on account of a big work project, the stress of a sick relative, or the sharp pinch of inflation as my husband and I try to maintain our household budget, life starts feeling enough like a desert that my Lenten disciplines wane and my resolve to pray, fast and give alms dissipates. Suddenly, I am over the desert and I want out.

Want more Radiant? Sign up for our weekly newsletter!

This is the point at which I start justifying doing the exact opposite of what I so enthusiastically committed to do just a few weeks earlier. I neglect my morning prayer time, skip the weekly holy hour because I have too much to do, treat myself to hot chocolate on a long day, and hem and haw about how much I really need to donate to my parish. In my wandering, I am overcome by thirst and quickly jettison my efforts, resigning myself to the fact that I have failed Lent.

The living water

What is helping me this year is remembering that the three traditional Lenten disciplines — prayer, fasting and almsgiving — have a purpose beyond themselves. It is not just about taking time off of Instagram or maintaining an impressive prayer regimen for six weeks. These disciplines are meaningless if detached from their common telos, or end: relationship with the person of Jesus Christ and contemplation of the mystery of his salvific love for us.

If I make it to Easter miraculously having kept up with all that I set out to do on Ash Wednesday, but I do not know Christ more intimately, what was the point? At the same time, if Easter comes and my spirit is wearied and defeated, I also have missed the point. The suffering of these 40 days should refresh and reawaken the dormant parts of myself that have lost sight of God’s overwhelming, incomprehensible, and completely unmerited love for his children that goes so far as death on the cross. Yes, it is hard to examine those dark corners of our lives that are in need of repentance and restoration, but we do it with hope, believing that the cross does not have the final word, even during Lent. Without hope, Lent will run itself dry.

So, as I wander in the desert this Lent, I notice the stream of water accompanying me. A stream of water for when I am thirsty, that encourages me when I am blinded by my own sin and shame, that enables me to continue my wanderings with hope that I will reach the promised land. Rather than stagnant water, this living water flows gently and freely, beckoning me to continue my desert journey and reminding me that I am with the One who gives living water to satiate all thirst (cf. Jn 4:10-14).

Receiving as women

Especially as women, receiving Christ’s living water is harder than simply conjuring the image of it. We are do-ers, always cognizant of the needs of those around us. We are pursuing degrees, managing households and organizing meal trains, all while raising children, volunteering and contributing to our communities in tangible and significant ways. We are accustomed to giving and doing and giving some more.

To receive is something entirely different.

This Lent, I am drawing close to Christ, the source of the living water that springs up to eternal life, in three intentional ways. First, instead of filling my schedule with things to do, I am trying to create space. This means saying no to certain professional or social invitations (and working on letting go of any guilt associated with saying no!). I’m also shutting down certain apps on my phone that take up precious time and energy in my life. I am embracing the rare unscheduled times on my calendar, and trying to create more of them. Secondly, as I make space and say no to more activity, I find that I slow down. I am not as rushed or frazzled because I have more time and am more present to the people and tasks in front of me. I notice God’s graces so much more frequently and feel more at peace, open to receiving what God desires to give me.

Finally, and perhaps the most difficult of the three, I am attempting to name my dependence. I am dependent on my husband, on our unborn child growing in my womb, on my parents and siblings, on my friends and students, on my parish community. Above all, I am dependent on God, on his providence, mercy, patience, ultimate sacrifice and life-giving water that sustains me. I cannot do it alone. I need to remind myself of that every day and give thanks that I do not have to.

Journeying through Lent refreshed

If we stay close to Christ’s living water, we will traverse the desert of Lent with steady hearts and refreshed spirits. Rather than admitting defeat after a few weeks — or days — into Lent, when our ambitious plans prove too much to handle alone, we can journey with Jesus gently and slowly, never ceasing to turn to him for the nourishment on which we rely. And, when Easter morning comes and the stone is rolled away, we will celebrate the hope of eternal life that has sustained us on the hardest of our desert days.

@Copyright 2021. All rights reserved.