The early weeks of Lent coincided with the death of a friend, who died before her time. Sad as it was, her death has brought a new and positive awareness to my experience of Lent.
A few weeks prior to her death, upon her release from the hospital with news that her illness was terminal, she had requested a party to thank everyone for their support over the past year. It was a lovely party with abundant food, drink and lively conversation — a party like many she had hosted over the years.
This time, however, she greeted guests from a hospital bed arranged in a room that offered a view of her garden and near the kitchen, the hub of the house. Despite her serious and weakened condition she joined in the conversations, smiled and squeezed the hands of each person who approached her bed.
Whether or not it was intentional, she was shifting the course of things. She was consciously living each moment, comforting those who came to comfort her and her family. She was offering valuable lessons on living as well as dying.
Like many others, my husband and I left the party in deep thought about the courage and grace of this woman. Her family reported that she enjoyed the party. She drifted off that evening and died three days later, much sooner than anticipated.
It was sobering and somewhat surreal to pray with her family and friends at the funeral liturgy. But the homily was thought provoking.
We were reminded that her spirit was with us, and were invited to consider modeling our Lenten practices on that spirit. Her kindness, patience, willingness to listen and ability to draw people together were offered as points of reflection for our own lives. Not only was the homilist confirming her presence among us; he was also suggesting observances for Lent that offered the opportunity for building relationships as well as spiritual growth.
In my youth, the emphasis on Lent was on personal sacrifice and strict adherence to the rules of fasting and abstaining from meat, suffering in some small way to help focus more on our relationship with God. Today the focus remains the same but is more of a communal effort.
Small faith groups meet and private confessions have in many cases moved into parish reconciliation services. Parishes (like those in Ventura County, in The University series) work together to offer faith-based presentations. Service projects for and with others have become an integral part of Lent in many communities.
On-line Lenten retreat experiences allow even the busiest among us to spend a few minutes each day reading and reflecting on Scripture and drawing us into a daily Lenten meditation. They are well planned, relevant to life and some offer an option for discussion through chat rooms.
The day before my friend’s funeral, “Moved to Greater Love,” created by and for Jesuits and their colleagues, posed a question that was particularly relevant: “Have I chosen life or chosen death lately?” The question for the next day asked, “Where am I needed most? Where and how can I serve best?”
What really is important in life? Where are our priorities? How can we serve best? These are very connected questions. They speak to our private selves, to that part of us that reaches out to others.
And discerning how best to serve is very much connected with choosing life. My friend literally chose life to the very end, and served others through the joy, grace and dignity with which she lived her last days — a beautiful example for the rest of us.
Anne Hansen is a member of the Camarillo Catholic community and regional director for Ignatian Volunteer Corps Los Angeles.