when there is nothing left in us
that can please or comfort our own minds,
when we seem useless and worthy of all contempt,
when we seem to have failed,
when we seem to be destroyed and devoured…
It is then
that the deep secret selfishness that is too close
for us to identify is stripped away from our souls.
It is in this darkness that we find liberty.
It is in this abandonment that we are made strong.
This is the night which empties us and makes us pure.
When I was a teenager, Lent was a competitive sport. I wanted not so much to walk the way of the cross as to strut the way of the cross. I wanted to achieve. I wanted people to say: “He is like Jesus. He is a tough [expletive deleted].”
As a freshman in high school, I decided giving up chocolate was passe. Instead, I ate nothing between meals, and this despite the fact that breakfast and lunch combined already constituted no more than a Carnation Instant Breakfast and six mozzarella sticks. As a bottomless pit in the middle of a violent growth spurt, I went from being chubby to looking like a rail in six weeks.
I got headaches. I liked headaches. They made me holy. Headaches were Jesus-ish. I imagined each one as a liturgically-appropriate purple ribbon bearing the words “Honorable Mention.” I decided to do it again next year.
And so it happened. But sophomore year, the headaches were skull-splitting. My head pounded with spiritual pride, and probably hypoglycemia, as I translated Latin homework at my kitchen table. My mother told me I was making myself sick and should stop right now. Perhaps a week later, as if on cue, I went down with chicken pox.