We have entered the holiest time of year for many Christians. My guess is that if you are a practicing Catholic, who takes your faith seriously, then you are probably having a visceral response to the word Lent.
Maybe, for you, it’s excitement with the anticipation of what God is about to do in your life! Congratulations, good for you! But for many others, different feelings pop up: anxiety, fear, dread, frustration, loathing, indifference, apathy, guilt… I can keep going, but you get the idea.
What are all these uncomfortable feelings about? What thoughts are hiding in the shadows? For me, it’s “What’s the point? I won’t get it right. I will most likely fail!” Or, “My life is hard enough! What more can I sacrifice?” Or, “I have nothing left to give! God, give me a break!”
Yikes. My brain looks like a scary place on paper. I have a sneaking suspicion that yours might too. So, what next? How can we find a new way to approach Lent with peace and maybe even joy? Or at least curiosity?
For those who don’t know me, I’m Monica Herber, a wife of nearly 15 years and the adoptive mom of a scrumptious 7-year-old boy who has profound disabilities—cerebral palsy, spastic quadriplegia, severe seizure disorder, microcephaly, nonverbal, developmental delays, the list goes on. . . Basically, my son, Caiden, requires assistance for every activity you can think of. Life, in my home, looks a lot different than your typical household. Lots of medical equipment and adjustments to daily living are needed for there to be function and order. When illness strikes, we must take precautions to keep our son from being hospitalized, like staying away from crowds to limit exposure to viruses. Sadly, this too excludes mass at times. The life of the medically complex can be isolating and lonely. Depressed yet? Don’t be! There is a hidden power to my circumstances that few get to experience, and that is what I would like to share.
In the beginning of our journey with Caiden, we struggled to practice our faith in a meaningful way. Before adopting Caiden, we had been a part of a thriving community, Frassati Fellowship, for which we had to pretty much abandon because of our son’s sensory processing disorder—making noise, loud music, new faces in his face were impossible for him to bear.
As extroverts, remaining far from the crowd was soul-crushing for both my husband and me. Bitterness over missing out on the high Holy days, community, the sacraments, time for prayer and the attached practices we had become spiritually dependent upon set in and remained for a long while. Also, the phone stopped ringing. It was no longer easy to engage in relationship with us, so many friends simply stopped trying. As I grew lukewarm in faith and red-hot in resentment, I was failing to see how God was trying to do something new and much greater in my life. He was quite literally setting me apart! The very definition of holiness.
Although I was unaware, essentially the intensity of my circumstances made every tiny sacrifice of prayer or worship become of disproportionate value in comparison to my previous “spiritual success”.
Now, I wonder, do we all give ourselves enough credit when we face the unexpected changes of life? Are we unfairly judging our “small” sacrifices to the Lord, because we are attached to what it once looked like and what we believe it should look like? And in our frustration and failure to match this image of perfect sacrifice, might we be missing out on an opportunity to enter into Lent in a newer and possibly holier way?
After banging my head against the wall, trying to worship, pray and fast like I used to, I quit. Gave up. And despaired.
It wasn’t pretty. Thankfully, Jesus never quit on me (and never will). He reached into my darkness and started to speak into it. I could not pray an hour a day anymore, so the Holy Spirit became more efficient with me. With any quick prayer I could offer, He would send me an image or a word almost immediately.
The most powerful example being the time when we left Caiden’s 18-month well-visit from the pediatrician’s office, where she reported his head had stopped growing at 4 months, had not grown since, and would most likely not grow much more. He was officially diagnosed with microcephaly. I was destroyed. But, thankfully, I was so tired of being sad that I asked God for a word, as I pushed Caiden’s stroller over the damp New York City sidewalks, hot tears streaming down my cold cheeks. Boy, did He deliver!
The Spirit spoke into my heart, almost audibly, “Caiden is your pathway to heaven.” The Voice elaborated, “When I was hungry, you gave me food. When I was a stranger, you welcomed me. I was naked, you clothed me. I was sick, you visited me. I was in prison and you came to me. Truly, I say to you, as you did to one of the least of my brethren, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:35-40) These words were a healing balm to my battered heart. From that moment forward, the Lord put me on a path to new holiness, where my efforts were no longer the focus, but His will, abundantly gracious and merciful, became my purpose.
That day, my beautiful gentle Father showed me I was already living my Lenten promises in an even more glorious way, and it wasn’t even Lent! I simply needed to become aware of it and intentional with how I served my little Jesus, Caiden, in the privacy of our life at home.
Doing “holiness” in my limited way, had only brought me frustration, anger and despair. I mistakenly thought, if it no longer looked like traditional prayer, fasting and almsgiving, then it didn’t count. Many of us wrongly believe if the sacrifice being asked of us is not “hard” then it must not be from God. But when has God ever asked the impossible of us?
I can hear you murmuring, ugh, how about crossing the Red Sea, walking on water, the lion’s den or carrying our cross? Sure, those are big asks. But what God is really asking of you, in your most impossible moments, is to ask Him to do the impossible in and through you! AND, what if, within the impossible, God fully expects you to struggle and even fail? What if failing is the point?!
Our failures lead us to lean into His help, His strength, His love, and His mercy because, on our own, we simply are not capable.
I wonder, if we took away all these conditions from our Lenten promises, what would remain? Nothing? Nope. I think it would leave something far more authentic and purer, free from perfectionism and scrupulosity. A sacrifice more possible and doable, yet still challenging and transformative.
Remember, too, that God wants growth in your current station in life and vocation. For the laity, sacrifice need not resemble what the religious are called and expected to sacrifice daily, especially during Lent.
God’s holy will always draws us deeper into the life and vocation to which we have already committed ourselves. God always honors His covenants, and He desires you to do the same.
Friends, good discernment is required when making any decision about penances or spiritual sacrifices. Bring it to your Metanoia Journal. Soberly, look at your thoughts on Lenten sacrifice. Our Lord knows you better than you know yourself. He also knows what sacrifice you can make that will be most acceptable and instrumental in your transformation into sainthood.
What sacrifice makes most sense for the season in which you find yourself?
And what if your sacrifice becomes interrupted by factors beyond your control?
How might the interruption be part of God’s plan to sanctify and level up you and your sacrifice?
May your lent be a time of extraordinary transformation within the ordinary, messy circumstances of your precious life. God bless!
About the Author
About the Author
Monica Herber, the creator of The Joyful Unknown is a Certified Christian Life and Marriage Coach. She has been successfully working with clients to find the joy of the Lord during great difficulties and deep suffering for the last 3 years. Monica has helped individuals and married couples discover the redemptive meaning of their sufferings, allowing them the space to re-engage in their vocations and enjoy life again. Her passion as coach is to help her clients move from mere survival into living, and eventually thriving! Monica can be reached for coaching at this link, otherwise you can contact her on Facebook or Instagram.
Monica has been happily married for almost 15 years to her best friend Nathan. In 2015, after 7 years of struggling with infertility, they adopted their son, Caiden Emmanuel, when he was 3 months old. Atbirth, Caiden survived a severe loss of oxygen, resulting in spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy, microcephaly, severe epilepsy, and global developmental delays. The Joyful Unknown was born out of Monica’s own battle for joy, a painful but necessary struggle toward faith-filled acceptance of her son’s prognosis. From this place of real joy, her desire to coach other parents of children with disabilities to find joy on this journey less traveled, began.
A native New Yorker and daughter of immigrant parents, Monica graduated from Binghamton University in 1997, with a bachelor’s degree in Comparative Literature. She went on to pursue a career in acting after she graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with an MFA. Monica worked Off-Broadway, in some television and independent films, and did lots of auditioning for several years. After September 11th, 2001, God called Monica toward a new dream for her life, so she began her journey back home to the Church. A powerful experience in Adoration brought her back into the grace of the sacraments and life was never the same. As a result, Monica received her BSN in Nursing, became a Registered Nurse in 2005, worked at NYU Langone’s recovery rooms, the cardiovascular care unit, and, most recently, at Prisma Outpatient Surgery Center in SC.
After falling in love with her husband at her first ever Catholic retreat, Monica became devoted to ministry. She went on to assist her husband in leading Frassati Fellowship NYC, one of the largest Catholic young adult ministries in New York City, as well as serving as a ministry leader from 2009 to 2014, leading and organizing bible studies, retreats, monthly Holy Hours and fellowship dinners, giving talks, as well as serving on prayer teams and music ministry. During this time, Monica became trained in UnBound deliverance prayer helping others live in the freedom of Christ.
She now enjoys southern living with her family in Greenville, South Carolina.