Every year when Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Lenten season for Christians, I wonder what to write. It’s a struggle, because what Lent really means to me is a time to go deeper, to examine, and to change what I see within myself that I don’t necessarily like. And it’s hard. There’s a reason Lent lasts those 40 days, 46 counting Sundays. It’s the same amount of time Jesus was in the desert, isolated and struggling.
This year I wanted to write something different, something I hadn’t thought of before. When I lived in Syracuse and edited the Catholic Sun, I had plenty of opportunity to talk to priests about Lent and everything else. But it’s been a while since I’ve taken the time to have a conversation with a priest. Then I remembered Tom McNamara.
He is an old friend, someone I met more than 20 years ago at St. Francis Farm in Orwell, N.Y., north of Syracuse. He was a volunteer at a Catholic Worker farm, where a handful of mostly young adults lived and prayed together, working out in the rural community, fixing up rundown homes for the underserved, hosting and preparing a weekly free dinner for friends and neighbors, growing vegetables to share, tending a little livestock, and more.
At the dinners, Tom would get out his guitar and lead the group in song, sometimes with another friend, John Doughty, or anyone else who might play an instrument. I loved those dinners. I was newly divorced, and I’d take the kids to them when they were young. The free dinner came in handy, but I also wanted my children to see a different way of living, one that didn’t involve the latest things money could buy, and one that was focused on community and being present for one another. I’m not sure what their takeaway was, but they do remember the dinners to this day. They were somewhat like our community suppers here on the Island.
I thought I would reach out to Tom through Facebook and ask him about his thoughts on Lent this time around. He’s now Father Thomas McNamara, OFM Cap., a Capuchin Franciscan priest, and pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows Church on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, ordained by Boston’s Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley. New York City and Orwell couldn’t be more different as far as settings go, but as Tom led me to remember, people struggle everywhere.
He went to the heart of the matter when he wrote, “We tend to want to stay with mediocrity and go with the flow around us. And the Lord is challenging us to up our game, to rise to the occasion in reaching out to others who are different from us, but also reaching inside and embracing the leper within, our own crosses, and see how the Lord might be asking us to use our unique weakness, dependency, and littleness to bring about a different kind of appreciation and collaboration.” Ew, I thought, “the leper within.”
I don’t like to think about that part of myself. Who does? I want to think about the sweet parts, the part that loves my family and tries to be friendly when I meet new people. The part that gets those kind notes from my kids sometimes. The nice lady. But then I’m staying safe with what I already know, not stretching to see into the dark spaces. This is something I can sink my teeth into for Lent, since I haven’t really explored my own “inner leper” to any real length. Too difficult.
Father Tom (it’s still weird to call him that) said that he’s been taken by the recent Sunday Gospel readings from Matthew, Chapter 5. He said the readings call us to a higher standard than the 10 Commandments. You’ll find the Beatitudes in this chapter. Here Jesus says, “Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles,” and “Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.”
How many times have I shrugged it off when my husband asks me to go for a walk and I just want to either keep working on my laptop or sit comfortably in the recliner? How many times have I said, “I can’t, I’m so busy,” when a neighbor asks me to come by for a quick visit? How many times did I look away when they passed the collection basket at church, when I could have easily added something to it? How often have I thought about volunteering in the community, only to tell myself, “You just don’t have the time”? When I take a closer look, I find I’m pretty easy on myself.
“Love of enemies, turning the other cheek, carrying the load for an extra mile, giving your cloak as well as your shirt,” Father Tom wrote, “loaning money not expecting repayment, forgiving like Christ … it all points to the need to see like our heavenly Father sees … to take time to contemplate daily so that we can see. To interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to entertain a different way of being.”
He wasn’t talking about earth-shattering changes. He didn’t suggest I give away all I have and live for others. He did, though, make some easy recommendations for Lent, ones that I ought to be able to follow through on.
“We can find freedom, and a new way to freedom, through service,” he wrote. “Something as simple as a visit, a card, a lift, a bag of groceries, a meal made, a flower, can make all the difference, and because we took the time, it made a big difference in that person’s life and situation.”
Each one of us can find something like that to do, he said. “That seems to me the way to prime the pump of our spiritual lives, and perhaps could be a way to get the flow going this Lent,” Father Tom wrote. “You know, each person has a special gift that no one else has, and from that gift, strength, and ability can come a unique gift for the community.”
Right. It felt so good to talk with Tom again, to remember all those years ago and think now that it’s not a surprise that he’s a Franciscan priest. He was living his life simply many years ago, and he does it now at his parish in New York City.
There were some short bits of wisdom that I gleaned from our chat, and I’d like to share them here so that I can remind myself.
“For me, making a pot of soup and sharing it with our volunteers brings me great joy and even healing …”
“Find a sunny window …:”
“We are too independent …”
“Letting others in heals us …”
“Lent is a time to stop, do a self-check and get over ourselves …”
“We find God in the other …”
Thanks, Father Tom, for that Lenten boost. I needed it.
If you haven’t gone to a Neighborhood Convention gathering, it’s high time you did. They’re free, and they’re always interesting. It’s also a great way to get inside the various churches on the Island and see what they “feel” like.
The March meeting of the Neighborhood Convention will begin at 11 am on Tuesday, March 3, at the Federated Church, 45 South Summer St., in Edgartown. The Rev. Richard DenUyl will conduct the worship; Josie Kirkland of Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary will present the program, “Animals in Winter.” Bring a bag lunch; dessert and beverages will be provided by the hosts.
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