Return to the Lord by Jeny Aquino
Lent has an interesting way of sneaking up on me. One day it’s Christmas, then its New Year’s, and suddenly, it’s Lent. When I think about what Lent means to me, I remember the days where I would be with all my other classmates in elementary school asking each other “What are you going to give up?” and telling each other about giving up things like chocolate or fast food. I mean, not that there’s anything wrong with giving up those things, but as I grew older, I started to see how Lenten promises can be much more than giving up sweets or things we like to eat. After all, Lent is so much more in itself.
A few years ago, I was going through what I would call a “spiritual drought”. I had the love of God within me, but was in a place where I was unable to fully love him with my whole heart. For many reasons, I could not truly align my life with His plan for me. I made excuses like, “well, I’m not perfect” and tried to justify my lack of devotion to God by saying that He would love me no matter what I did and did not do. It was really difficult to admit to myself that I needed to get back on track.
Before I knew it, my prayer life was really lousy. I felt a strange emptiness wherever I went. I would attend Mass and go to church functions, but couldn’t shake the feeling that I was missing something. Even though I felt little signs here and there telling me to seek help, I felt that as long as I said that I loved God, I would eventually feel better. But it was only a matter of time before I realized that I needed to make a change in my life.
By the grace of God, I was able to participate in the Service and Leadership Training program, better known as SALT, which is hosted prior to Steubenville San Diego. This program calls young adults to seek God and devote themselves in faith at a deeper level; something that I desperately needed. The retreat I attended for SALT was going well, so well that I began to question something in myself. Amongst all the prayer and the amazingly powerful spiritual atmosphere, I found myself wondering if I even deserved to be there. I was surrounded by so many other young adults who seemed to be so much better people than I was. When I looked at who I was currently, I didn’t feel worthy to seek God. As we prepared for Reconciliation, I felt almost inclined to not go. Before I realized it, I was the only person who had not gone yet, and under pressure, got up to sit with the priest. Before I began to speak, I sat in front of him in silence, looking down. I couldn’t find the words. Without realizing I was speaking out loud, I muttered “I feel so lost. I don’t even know where to begin.” Immediately embarrassed, I was about to get up and leave, when the priest laid his hand over mine and calmly said, “Why not start here?” In hearing this, we opened with prayer and before I knew it, I was pouring out my heart.
Sparing no detail or pain, I shared with the priest everything that had been in my heart the last several months. I kept looking to him thinking he would show an expression of shock or disgust, but found his expression to be gentle as he listened to me. When I was finished, I asked “Do I deserve to be forgiven?” I looked at my feet until the priest asked me to look at him. He told me of the story of when Jesus encountered the woman caught in adultery. I had heard this story many times. When the priest asked me what I remembered most from the story, I told him it was a story about how a woman was almost stoned but was not thanks to Jesus. But the priest laughed quietly to himself and asked me what Jesus had told the woman. For some reason, I couldn’t really remember and he told me that Jesus had asked the woman who was there to condemn her, and as she replied to Christ that no one was there to condemn her, Jesus simply told her “Neither do I. Go forth and sin no more”. As I was reminded of what Jesus told the woman, through utter acceptance and unconditional love, I begin to cry.
After that, I left the priest with a renewed spirit and a heart full of hope. For the rest of the retreat, I smiled and laughed along with my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ and felt like a whole new person. My spiritual drought was over. I realized after that day that what I needed all along was to just come back to God.
While this experience is one that I will never forget and occurred in the middle of the summer, I especially like to reflect on it when Lent comes around. I realized after that Reconciliation that it is never too late to come back to God. I also came to know more fully that while it is spiritually fulfilling to give up things in our life for the sake of God, it is also incredibly enlightening to do more in our life to honor him. After being a part of SALT, I was able to better participate not only in the Steubenville conference but in my overall daily faith life. When I gave up the things that did not help me in my relationship with God, I was able to love Him more devotedly and glorify Him so much more in my life. Attending both the SALT retreat and the Steubenville conference helped me to remind my soul that I belonged to God and God alone.
Lent is a time when we reflect more upon our lives and more clearly confront whatever it is that does not align with God and what he wants for us. Maybe for some of us, it is a person or a relationship that does not allow us to grow in holiness. Perhaps it is a past or habitual sin that keeps us from knowing Jesus fully. Regardless of what it is that holds you back, believe me when I say that you do not need it. Sacrificing things in our life may seem like a difficult thing to do, but it is entirely worth it. Sometimes, the things that make us happy are not always the best things for us. They may make us happy for a time but they do not fulfill us completely. God wants us to be full of life; he wants an unending joy to radiate our lives. This kind of joy is different than happiness. Sacrifice of what is not beneficial to growing in our relationship with God will be the first step to true joy in Jesus Christ. While it took me a bit of running around in circles to realize this, it is enough for me. God is always more than enough for me.
Even after everything, I did deserve to be forgiven. God tells us with all that He is that we are forever deserving and worthy of His love. So much is that worth that He made a way for us to fully know Him. He came to this very earth, became man, and sacrificed His entire life for us.
Rather than only focusing on what you want to give up this Lent, try to think about what it is you want to do more or start doing for God as well. If your faith life is already at a good place, then don’t be afraid to go even deeper. Allow this season to enable you to becoming even closer with Christ.
I pray that you do so remembering your worth. Never forget that God loves you. And if you ever do forget or even feel a little lost at times, remember that it is never too late to come back to God. If you truly seek Him, God will always show you the way back.
“Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God” (Joel 2:12).