It was during Lent last year that they closed the churches. I remember with perfect clarity the very last Mass I attended before everything shut down.
It was the Saturday vigil on March 14, more than halfway through Lent. I was nearly 3,000 miles from home, in California visiting my boyfriend, now my fiancé, and it was the last real trip I’ve taken in nearly a year.
We had gone to Newport Beach for the day and came across a tiny Catholic church, St. John Vianney Chapel, wedged between touristy shops on a storefront-lined street. We decided to go to the vigil Mass on a whim, shrugging, wondering if it made more sense to go on Sunday morning. We were accustomed to a world in which opportunities for Mass were always available, no matter where one might be. We had all but stumbled across this church in the least likely place just in time for Mass, hadn’t we?
The Gospel reading that night was the story of the Samaritan woman whom Jesus meets at the well. Rejecting the social customs of his time, Jesus asks her for a drink of water, creating a chance to confront her in her sin and call her to a new life. Instead of receiving from her a drink of water, He promises her living water from a source that will never run dry.
The encounter ends with the woman proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, and calling everyone in her town to see Him.
When we returned home from our trip that evening, we got word that every church in New York City was shutting its doors for the foreseeable future. Even though I couldn’t have known exactly how difficult the season ahead would be, I sat down and cried.
I remember with perfect clarity the very last Mass I attended before everything shut down.
I began last Lent praying for peace and for rest amidst the craziness of life, and in the end I received both, though not in the form I was expecting — how could I have guessed? When I asked for rest, I didn’t think the world would have to stop for my prayer to be answered.
Beginning Lent anew this year, it feels almost as though last Lent never really ended, as if the journey that began for me a year ago at a jam-packed Ash Wednesday Mass in St. Matthew’s Cathedral in DC has been marching on interminably ever since.
Easter came last year, and we did our best to celebrate, but without access to the Sacraments it felt bare, empty.
Watching Mass unfold from afar, watching death unfold around us, it felt as if Lent carried on. Even as Virginia bloomed into spring and our time stuck at home forced us to take refuge in the outdoors, the joy of the resurrection was elusive.
How are we to observe Lent well this season, when many of us may feel as though we’ve been adrift in a spiritual desert since Lent began last year? For myself, I am focusing on the basics, learning to correct the sense that Lent is about what we do for God, about renouncing so many things or performing so many tasks that we feel we’ve earned our way into the victory of Easter.
Beginning Lent anew this year, it feels almost as though last Lent never really ended.
Lent is, instead, like all liturgical seasons, an invitation to let Him work in us, letting go of what we don’t need to make space for Him to fill. Lent calls us to deny ourselves, set aside distractions, so that we can learn to rest in His presence.
He was present at that Mass in St. John Vianney Chapel, promising in His encounter with the Samaritan woman that He will never leave us without the living water. He was present in our homes even when all of the church doors were locked, even when we spent Easter without the Eucharist. He is present with us now as we begin another journey to meet Him at the foot of the cross, and perhaps this year find ourselves a little closer to Him in the resurrection.