It is not uncommon to walk into your local Catholic church during Lent and find the place decorated for the season. Purple, of course, is a must.
Images, especially crucifixes, are covered. Occasionally they bring out the big guns and roll out the extra bloody Jesus and teary-eyed Mary. Anything to help set the mood for these forty days of fasting, abstinence, and sacrifice.
Last week I celebrated a baptism at one of our local churches and found the baptismal font had been filled with a cactus planted dramatically in dry sand. The image was clear. Or maybe not. At first glance, you would think that the decorator used the thorny vegetation to express that Lent is that dry, prickly season that all Catholics have to drudge through in order to get to the good stuff… Easter. Lent must be a time of suffering, penance, and discomfort. It’s like a cactus.
But, if you really knew anything about cacti, you would know that there is much more to them than meets the untrained eye. Let me explain.
In 2005 I was sent to do tertianship, the last stage of formal formation for a Jesuit. It normally takes place a few years after ordination and is the last step before a Jesuit can take his final vows. When the provincial first approached me about tertianship he asked me where I wanted to go. For close to a year I had thought about where to go and had even played out the conversation many times in my head. I was convinced that Salamanca, Spain was the perfect place.
In order to sell the idea of Spain I had to come up with several good reasons. I would tell my provincial that I had never done any stage of formation in Europe, that Spain was the land of my ancestors, that Spain was the homeland of St. Ignatius and how wonderful it would be to walk in the footsteps of our beloved founder, that Spain had awesome Jesuits, that Spain has a great climate, that Spain is beautiful, that “I’ve never been to Spain, but I kinda like the music” (that’s a Three Dog Night song by the way).
The conversation with the provincial went beautifully. I was masterful; inspired by the Holy Spirit. The provincial told me that he loved the reasons for going to Spain. So, in 2005, I hopped on a plane to Santiago, Chile. That’s right… Santiago, Chile. I have since made a mental note for future reference never to really say where I want to go. No hard feelings though. God is good and in His infinite wisdom, coupled with a great sense of humor, sent me where I needed to go. He sent me to the place where I would best experience His grace.
One of the things that I did while in Chile was to spend three months working at Colegio San Luis Gonzaga, a Jesuit school in Antofagasta. This city is located in northern Chile, right on the coast (and Chile has a lot of coast) and on the edge of the world’s most arid desert: the Atacama. This desert is so dry (how dry is it?) that it only receives one millimeter of rainfall per year! As you can imagine, for a guy from Miami, this is unheard of. One millimeter of water per year!
Most nights while I was there I would stand on the rooftop of the school facing east and stare into an endless sea of sand. Plain brown sand as far as the eye could see. If you ventured into the desert you would occasionally run into a random, solitary cactus. While its outward appearance is not very inviting, I learned that for the locals the cactus was a sight for sore eyes, the cactus meant life. Not only could you eat the fruit that it produces, but also eat its fleshy bark. More importantly, locals knew that if you sliced open the cactus you get water. Lots of water. Think about it, stranded in the desert, the cactus means hope, the cactus means life.
This is Lent. For the untrained eye, Lent may seem like a season of sadness and suffering. Lent seems so dry that in many places it has to be buffered by a Fat Tuesday where no rules apply because forty days of pain are on their way. But for the locals, Lent is a time of spiritual growth, a time of strengthening our relationship with Jesus Christ, a time for offering him our lives as he offered his to us. Surrounded by the desolation and sadness of sin that exists in our world, Lent is a time of hope and life.
This is why the lonely cactus sits in that baptismal font. It is the constant reminder that for the Catholic, Lent means life. As this great and beautiful season of Lent comes to a close and we approach its culminating point on Easter Sunday, take advantage of what is left to reflect on your life and give thanks.