My studies taught me Lent has been observed in two very different ways. My tradition was rooted in a Northern European tradition. It was heavy, weighted down with individual and communal reflection on sinfulness. It rendered me the convicted criminal, a recidivist appearing every year before God as Judge seeking to reform myself. Ideal: Lent renewed spiritual discipline as modeled by St. Ignatius and others. Real: Lent reinforced unhealthy perfectionism in an inner child broken by abuse and striving for redemption and safety. Feeling worth less and being told by institutional patriarchy to give more, I struggled between fight or flight.
Later, I learned of Southern European traditions of Lent as celebration. I felt surprise, wonder, and doubt. I resisted the temptation to flee from one tradition to another, convinced each part of our divided Church holds part of God’s complete answer. I found my answer. Each of my cancer diagnoses came during Lent. I used Lenten spiritual disciplines to process my grief. I meditated on Genesis 3:19, “From dust, to dust…from dust, to dust.” In the space between these two phrases, a calm settled, and a light expanded within me. I realized, I am from dust and to dust I shall return, and every breath God animates me. I recalled God provided comfort to me as a suffering child and available to all if they will be still and know. Lent as sacrifice was replaced with Lent as a loving response between my eternal spirit in constant connection with God.
I now understand Lent as addition by subtraction. It is an invitation to reflect and strip away those things that get in the way of the love of God, others, and self. As a chaplain, I witness the suffering that comes with unsatisfactoriness. I now see aging, illness, and death as Lenten stripping away, calling us to repent and return to the simple love we knew as children…either by its presence or by its absence.
Through solitude, community (especially DSF and CPE), and ministry (Nouwen), I found healers and healing. In chaplaincy, I became a wounded-healer. My marks were transformed into gifts and suffering into wisdom enabling deeper connection with God, others, and self. I pray for the day the world will recognize there is enough for all if we abandon coveting and, like Mary, choose the better part bringing us closer on Earth as it is in Heaven.
Chaplain (Ret.) Raymond McDonald is a DSF/University of the West graduate M.Div./2016 and was born and raised in Los Angeles, CA. He is a West Point graduate and served as an Armor Officer. Following military service, he earned a USC MBA and worked in continuous improvement and turnarounds. Formed and informed by injustice and suffering, he became a VA Chaplain with primary assignment in Mental Health/Acute Psychiatric Unit. Dual ordained CC(DOC) and Buddhism, he co-founded Veterans Engaging Together (V.E.T.), developed and taught classes on mindfulness at San Jose State University, served as a plenary panelist in a Moral Injury and Soul Repair Conference, and presented applied mindfulness in clinical chaplaincy in Fujian, China and Columbia University before retiring in 2022.