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  • Writer's pictureFaith Hakesley

Walking Through the Desert of Lent

My thoughts on the Coronavirus (COVID-19), the Catholic Church sexual abuse crisis, and finding Christ during this Lenten season

+JMJ+ Well, friends, we sure have had an eventful start to March and to the Lenten season, haven't we? How are you holding up? I imagine that, much like me, many of you have been thrown for a loop by this coronavirus business. It's just about all I've heard about for the past few weeks.

Make no mistake, the devil is going to take advantage of the fear and anxiety of these times. I think it's interesting to note (and some of us may have seen this same point made across social media) that many churches are closing their doors but many businesses that promote sin (such as Planned Parenthood) are not. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is not being held in many churches and, personally, I am heartbroken because I can't help but wonder: to where and to whom will people turn in their anxiety? Let us pray God is the answer and not sin! Think about the many opportunities for sin that arise when we fail to turn to God. We see lust, greed, and selfishness. Sadly, people turn to impure acts, alcohol, drugs, gambling, etc., and any number of sinful practices to help ease anxiety and pain. This is not the way to go!

I find it “strange” that all of this is unfolding during the Lenten season. Many of us may have already been struggling to stay true to our Lenten promises and sacrifices. Lent is never an easy season, is it? Well, it's suddenly gotten a whole lot harder, hasn't it? A lot of us probably started out with an enthusiastic energy that quickly faded. The idea of “no chocolate” for 40 days or whatever it is we have tried to give up suddenly seems impossible. I think a lot of us start focusing so much on what we are giving up rather than considering everything our sacrifices gain. This is often the case when we find ourselves suffering. We start out thinking, “I can handle this! I can do this!” Slowly, we find ourselves thinking, “Is this really worth it? This hurts too much! I want out!”

My family is lucky to have a wonderful, wise pastor at our parish and he never ceases to inspire us. I can honestly say that I never leave his masses without some nugget of wisdom - a remark that makes me think, something that challenges me, or words that remind me to hope. In one of his recent Sunday homilies, Father talked about how we become comfortable and accustomed to the everyday comforts of life and Lent helps to shake things up a bit, helping to strengthen us.

I love Father's illustration: when we struggle or suffer, it's as though we are caught in a thorn bush. When you're caught in thorns, your natural instinct is to struggle in order to get free. That's usually my first inclination! But really the best way to get out is to slowly break free. It's less painful, will leave you with fewer wounds and you have a lesser chance of ripping and damaging your clothing. It requires slowing down and taking your time. Breaking free requires patience.

The same thing is true in our everyday lives. Our tendency is to want to rush through the bad parts, to get it over with, and to get over the pain as quickly as possible. The truth is, healing takes time and preparation. Healing requires that we slowly free ourselves from the thorn bush. No matter how deeply into our skin the thorns have dug, patience is needed to get free. When we don't slow down, assess the situation, and consider how to get free step-by-step, we risk bringing further damage to ourselves.

Suffering will always be a mystery to us but the fact is we all suffer at one time or another and we need to prepare ourselves for it. Even Jesus knew to prepare for the difficult times that were to come. Hence, he spent 40 days in the desert. That was not an easy time for Him...not at all. He not only went without food or water but He faced all manner of temptation from the devil. Yet, through it all, Jesus knew what He had to do and He recognized that that time alone with His father was necessary. It prepared Him. It strengthened Him.

We may all suffer and heal differently and the timing is different for each of us but one thing is true for everyone: just as Jesus entered into His own desert for a time, we all walk through some kind of desert at some time in our lives.

Let's be real here. No one wants to suffer. Suffering hurts. Suffering is inconvenient, messy, and often causes our lives to turn upside down. Case in point, many people in the world are in a panic because of COVID-19. These times are bringing out the best and the worst of people. Some people are panicking while others are completely shrugging this situation off. Some people are taking this virus seriously and taking extra precautions especially for the sake of the elderly and high risk individuals. Others believe that the measures being taken throughout our country are selfish and extreme.

I'm not an expert on this and, in the grand scheme of things, my opinion matters little. Let's just be kind to one another shall we? Let's respect that some people may be suffering tremendously because of this virus – be it physically, spiritually, or emotionally. Personally, I am in the high risk category as is our youngest child and so my family is taking extra precautions during this time. Are we panicking? No. I don't think panic is ever the right answer. All-out panic doesn't solve anything. Fear only leads to more fear and addressing this issue rationally and calmly seems like the best way to go.

The fact is, these times are uncertain and everything seems to be up in the air. The reality of the situation really hit me the other day when I received word that all Masses were being canceled in my diocese of Boston. With much prayer, discussion, and consideration I had already made the painful decision earlier in the week to refrain from attending Mass for the time being. Arrangements were being made for Holy Communion to be brought to our home. I was heartbroken by the thought of not being physically present at Mass but, at the same time, I was comforted in knowing that Jesus would still be brought to me. Now that this isn't even possible, I cannot fully express how broken my heart feels.

As strange as this may sound, I have come to see the blessings in the midst of this turmoil!

As a victim-survivor of clerical abuse, I have often struggled to attend Mass let alone walk into any church. I have kept going to Mass anyway despite the interior battle. Honestly, why I have been able to keep going while others are unable to, I don't really know. Is going to church painful? Sometimes. Just recently, I was hit with the worst flashback I've had in a long time. Something triggered me and I found myself wanting to run from the church. No, I don't hear voices but it was almost as though an interior voice deep down was taunting me to leave, telling me, “You're not strong enough, there's nothing for you here, there's no point in you being here...”

I can offer tidbits of advice and encourage others, but I can never tell anyone exactly how to heal. There is no one size fits all approach. God meets each of us where we're at and where I'm at in my healing may not be the same as someone else's. I do know that we are all loved. We are so, so loved! I know that Christ died for us so that we may have life. Each trial in our life can produce an outpouring of grace and only He can see what's in our hearts.

For most Catholics, the sexual abuse scandal is a desert we have all found ourselves walking through in one way or another. Whether you have suffered clerical abuse or not, the sins of others have been impossible to ignore, nor should we in this case. The pain of the victims, parishes, priests and everyone else is very real and it's tough to face. The thorn bush of scandal, corruption, and sin has affected all of us, some of us at a far more personal level than others. People have lost their lives due to despair, lost their faith, and lost all trust in God and in human beings. Priests are in a rather impossible situation, even the good, holy ones. Sometimes it seems as though, in some people's eyes, priests can do nothing right and they are faced with near constant criticism. "You're too this..." or "You're not enough of that...." Although there are good bishops, it seems that the few outspoken ones trying to defend and rebuild while many others are also under constant criticism from some sides. Others are openly corrupt and failing as shepherds. Still others are just silent. Many Catholics seem to realize that, while there have always been those who have sought to destroy the church, this time around we are being attacked by our own, by those who should be leading us, the people we should be able to trust. They are wolves in sheep's clothing.

I understand how tempting leaving the church may seem at times. Most of us have probably at least been tempted to throw our hands up in despair and leave it all behind, especially at this time in the Catholic Church. I have sometimes thought, "I've had enough!" I have sometimes thought that giving up my faith would be easier than trying to patiently persevere through all the scandal, grime, and corruption. I, like so many others, wish there was a quick and easy fix, a way to get free from the thorn bush as quickly as possible.

In my own healing journey, I reached a point when I concluded that my leaving the Catholic Church wasn't going to do me any good. For my own reasons, I didn't feel that leaving would help my fellow victims, faithful and holy priests, or the church at large. Personally, I have felt called to stay, but I respect that not everyone feels this way. Whatever the reason, there has always been this sort of invisible string drawing me back to the sacraments over and over again through the years. Although, as much as I may love my Church now, I have sometimes taken the gift of God's love and of my faith for granted. At times, I have put Him on the back burner.

I understand the struggle. I really and truly do! For years I even avoided my childhood parish of All Saints where I was raped. I hated the very sight of the building! The church itself, the rectory, and some of the people who supported my rapist filled me with loathing. There came a point when my family just could not go there especially after I received threats. Yes, this may be hard to believe but my life was threatened by some of my rapist's supporters. Changing parishes was certainly not wrong for my parents and me (far from it) and, if anything, those years at a different local Catholic Church helped me to heal because I was able to receive the sacraments without dreading a building or a particular person. While I never fully left All Saints during those years (due to some involvement with the music ministry), those years mostly attending a different parish were the respite I needed.

A few years ago, I made my own choice to return fully to the parish of my childhood. That same invisible string that has always been pulling me back to the sacraments has, for whatever reason, always pulled me back to All Saints Parish. It's a spiritual home to me. I have come to love it again. I love the church, the priests, and the people but, most of all, I just know that as soon as I walk through that door I am in the presence of Jesus. This is the case in all Catholic churches I visit, but there is something unique and beautiful (for me anyway) about being able to return to the place where I was so hurt. A lot was taken from me but much has been given to me – many graces, many blessings, and much healing. God always brings something good out of bad situations and I have seen this time and time again. I have come to see the beauty in suffering and it is this beauty that I see every time I attend Mass or walk into church.

At the moment, due to the threat of COVID-19 I can't even go to church. Our church is remaining open for people to go and pray but my specialists have recommended that I avoid going into public places for the time-being. When you have a weak immune system due to cancer and other illnesses, not to mention a heart that nearly gave out last year, sometimes you have to trust the experts and take extra precautions to protect yourself (better safe than sorry). As I watched Holy Mass on TV over the weekend, I realized how much I love my Church – not only my parish but the Catholic Church itself. I've realized how lucky I am to be a part of this institution, imperfect as the people in it may be. During this time away from Mass and the Sacraments (however long or short of a time that may be), I've fallen in love with my Faith all over again.

As soon as I was living on my own, there were a handful of times when I purposely missed Sunday Mass and I wasn't very consistent about attending mass on Holy Day of Obligation either. On these occasions, I felt rebellious and a sort of "high" for going against what I had been taught and what I had always done. A part of me felt like I was "getting back" at something or someone - maybe it was a combination of wanting to hurt the priest who raped me, his supporters, and the church itself. I was making a statement (albeit silent). I was trying to prove that I was in charge. Suffice it to say, I was angry, bitter, and full of hate.

The trouble was, I didn't feel like I was in charge, not one bit. Actually, I felt more out of control than anything. I felt lost. That invisible string pulled me back to church again and again even when I didn't want to go, even when I was so angry that I physically couldn't bring myself to go up to receive Holy Communion, and even during months and months of not going to Confession and not taking my faith seriously.

How often have you come to truly appreciate something or someone only when you've lost it/them? That's how I'm feeling about Jesus right now. I know that He is always with me. I know that I am loved. But I am suddenly "craving" His presence more than ever before. The gift that Catholics have of receiving Jesus Himself in the Holy Eucharist (Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity) has, for many of us, been temporarily taken away and it is weighing heavily on our hearts.

Sometimes we better appreciate God's gifts when they are taken from us.

Many of us are surely finding ourselves walking in the desert this Lent and, as I mentioned before, how strange that all this is happening now during this season of preparation. How strange that this is all taking place as the sexual abuse crisis and the corruption of church leaders continues to unfold. How strange that people have been choosing to leave the Catholic Church, but now many of us don't even have the option to go. I truly believe that we are being given the unique opportunity to walk through the desert with Jesus. Getting free from the thorn bush in which we find ourselves entangled is not going to be easy but we will be freed. It's going to take time, patience, prayer, and trust in Our Lord.

Remember that the joy of Resurrection always comes after the pain and suffering of Good Friday. Remember the joy of the apostles upon realizing that Our Lord had risen! None of us is alone and Our Heavenly Father who loves us so much will not abandon us through these difficult times. Have faith. Hold onto hope. Let's help each other in this time of crisis. Let us not only offer prayers but also reach out to those in need when we can. This includes our parishes, priests, family, friends, and neighbors. There is no better time to practice the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, eh? Like it or not (believe it or not) this is a stressful and uncertain time for a lot of people. I encourage you to remain calm and rational, prepared, hopeful and in prayer. This is the best time to show our best selves! We are being invited to be the hands, feet and heart of Jesus here on earth - to show love to our neighbors, to be generous, and to sacrifice and pray for those in need. No matter what our differing opinions may be, we are called to show charity and respect towards one another.

Wash your hands (I sincerely hope you are already doing this! Ha!), use the hand sanitizer and Lysol, be conscious of your physical health and well-being. Take care of your body, take your vitamins, eat good and nutritious foods, and exercise. Pray, fast, help and encourage others. We should be doing all these things anyway! Again, let's be prepared and take necessary precautions but also let's not panic. Always, always remember that God will not abandon us and there is no better defense in any challenge we face than Him!

Remain confident in God. Rely on Him. Having exhausted all human efforts to contain this virus and provide care to those affected, all we can do is trust in His grace and mercy. He is with us and will not abandon His children. We cannot give in to the evil one and allow fear to overcome us. We may not know what is to come but let us not fear the future. May we enter into the coming days confident in Our Heavenly Father! Ask God for His gifts of courage, wisdom, and strength. Ask Him for the grace to withstand whatever crosses may come your way.

Hold onto hope! God always brings beauty from the ashes and He will do so with all the struggles we face in the Catholic Church and in the world today. With patience, surrender, and reliance to God's strength and wisdom, anything is possible. Our Lord patiently waits for us to call upon Him. He holds each and every one of us in the palm of His hand. He will bring each of us through our deserts. Instead of facing the rest of this Lenten season and this Coronavirus with gloom, let us strive to face our struggles with a spirit of joy.

In closing, consider for a moment how much more joyous the Resurrection will be! How glorious Easter Sunday and the Easter season will be when we re-emerge from this desert!

Do what you can. God will take care of the rest.

You're all in my prayers!

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