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By Leah Perrault


A memorable penance

Third Sunday of Lent
March 8, 2015
Exodus 20:1-17
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 1: 18, 22-25
John 2:13-25

In the darkest part of my struggle with depression three years ago, I remember sitting with my confessor in tears. I was broken, and I knew I was broken but I did not know how to be healed. Physically, life was exhausting; there was never enough sleep to feel rested. Emotionally, I was spent, and I had nothing left to deal with the ordinary stresses and challenges of family and work.

Spiritually, I was utterly confused. “What is God asking of me? Why is this happening to me? What if it destroys me, or my marriage, or my kids? What if it never gets any better?” In my experience, there are no universal, quick or easy answers to these questions. There is only the balm of presence — God’s and others’ — that helped me to know that, though beaten down, I was not abandoned.

The gentle priest, as I named my brokenness and failings, gave me a penance I never would have anticipated. He asked me to go and buy a dozen roses for myself. He told me to watch them closely, to be nurtured by their life and beauty. I was on board immediately. Greatest penance ever. And then he surprised me, saying, “Don’t throw them out too soon. Appreciate the beauty as they start to brown on the edges, get dry and withered. Leah, make sure that you watch them — and love them — while they die.”

It is shocking to me every time it happens that this life includes death. Not just one death, but many little deaths . . . the deaths of dreams, of hopes, of expectations, the deaths of dear friends and loved ones and the bitter deaths of those unreconciled to us. It’s the one great certainty that we can know, yet I resist it to the point of forgetting its inevitability and resenting it when it shows up.

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians reminds us that the crucifixion and the cross seem like foolishness to those who have not lived the resurrection. It is only by walking through the Paschal Mystery that the cross makes sense — “it is the power of God.” Paul reminds us that God is strong enough to sustain and realize our greatest hopes — precisely because Jesus died for us in our weakness. This revelation became a stronghold for me in depression, that God does not remove my weakness or brokenness but rather joins me in it. This is our salvation, a God who conquers death by dying. It baffles my mind and saves my soul.

When Jesus upsets the tables in the temple, he is challenging the system of sacrifice used for purification in the temple. Before Christ, ritual sacrifices were used for purification and forgiveness of sin. By becoming, in his body and blood, the eternal sacrifice, Jesus is introducing the idea that only death will save us from death. Resurrection cannot be bought; it can only be lived.

The Ten Commandments seem like a strange add on to these readings about Jesus’ death, except that the context for the Ten Commandments is that God gives them as the “God who brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” For as long as we have to earn righteousness, we are enslaved in a system where our sinfulness keeps us bound, even if we get momentary reprieves. The Ten Commandments are not shackles from the real God. These laws are designed to make us free, to walk through a world overcome by death and still live.

From depression, I learned that there are darknesses over which I will have no control, that God neither wills nor wills away, but that he will not waste. God has held me while I died the death of depression, and while I rose from the ashes. Last summer, I planted a pot of basil on my deck, which proceeded to wither for three or four weeks. I was ready to pitch it and mourn the loss of homemade pesto when a single green basil leaf grew out of the brown and wrinkled stalks. And that single leaf grew into a whole new plant which sustained its life for the rest of the season on top of the withered base.

Lent is a season for practising tiny and intentional deaths to our own desires. It is a habit-forming season to be intentionally aware of the beauty and graces that come from dying. I have learned that when Lent falls in a season that I am experiencing real deaths, such as grief, depression or stress, my lenten disciplines need to foster more beauty, rest and joy. And when Lent shows up in a relatively stable time in my life, I need to choose disciplines which allow me to practice the art of watching and loving myself through small deaths, in preparation for the real ones that will inevitably come without my desire or will.

I do not know when the little deaths will give way to my ultimate death. But, if the smaller and not so permanent deaths are teaching me anything, it is that death is the stuff from which God builds new life. God isn’t afraid of it, cannot be outdone by it. God has died and it and rose again, and I will too — in this life and the next.

I have never seen roses that have died as beautifully as that penance bouquet. They stayed upright the whole time they died. Not a single one flopped over, fell down or broke into pieces. They were a perfect dried image of their deep red and green life. I broke off the flowers and keep them in a jar in my office. They are still dead, still giving me life.

Perrault is the director of Pastoral Services for the Diocese of Saskatoon. She is co-author of How Far Can We Go? A Catholic Guide to Sex and Dating. She and her husband, Marc, are the parents of three young children.