Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season have arrived.

I remember thinking at some point — during these last two years of pandemic and societal strife — that I felt like we were in a perpetual Lent. It seemed that there was only suffering, pain, and lots and lots of penance around us. It seemed that we were surrounded by ashes with no end in sight. It seemed that we’d been in the Lenten season for far too long.

My natural tendency is to look beyond what is here and now, to what is next. My thoughts go straight to the Easter season and the longing for the joy and peace of the Resurrection. “Can we just skip over this pandemic and societal strife and get to the joy and peace part? Can we just make Lent go a little faster so we can get to the Resurrection? Haven’t we endured enough suffering and sacrifice? I can’t wait until this is over.”

I know what the answer is, but sometimes I can’t help wanting something different.

“Ms. Willie was reminding me to be present in the season I am in now: not to look ahead, but rather to see what is and to see its goodness.”

— Emmjolee Mendoza Waters, B.A. 2001, M.S.W. 2009

Ms. Willie at Cardinal Weekend 2017

Ms. Willie Joyner at Cardinal Weekend 2017

Recently, I had a conversation with Ms. Willie, a long-time food service worker on campus, and more importantly, one of the most holy people on campus. I saw her on a Thursday and I mentioned how I could not wait until Friday. She, in her loving and joyful way, said (paraphrasing), “Be here. You don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Be here. Today is a gift.” Through her infinite wisdom and joyful nudging, I am put in my place. Be here. Today is a gift.

This Lenten season is a gift.

There is no rushing, getting over with, passing over of the Lenten season. Ms. Willie was reminding me to be present in the season I am in now: not to look ahead, but rather to see what is and to see its goodness.

Lent is a time to pray, fast, and give. It is a time to reflect on Christ’s sacrifice, his death, and ultimately the gift of hope he gives us. It is a time for a deeper and more intimate relationship with Christ. Through our prayer, fasting, and giving we can begin to enter into a new and more personal relationship with Christ.

“The call and the need for us to be proximate with one another and with Christ is even more important now.”

— Emmjolee Mendoza Waters, B.A. 2001, M.S.W. 2009

I recently heard Fr. Manuel Williams, CR, speak on campus about Sr. Thea Bowman, FSPA, M.A. 1970, Ph.D. 1973. He was sharing his experience of being a student of Sr. Thea Bowman and what he thought she would say to us today. He said something that has been sitting with me. He said that Sr. Thea Bowman would say we need to be in close proximity with one another.

Proximity. Seems simple, yet in the past two years, and I would even say longer than that, we have lost our ability to be in close proximity to one another. Some of this is due to the pandemic, but even without that, our culture and society have been drawing us apart. So the call and the need for us to be proximate with one another and with Christ is even more important now.

What does it mean to be in proximity to one another? The obvious answer is closeness. Not just in the physical sense, but in the intimate sense. How do we do this? How do we be in proximity to one another and, most importantly, with Christ?

I believe that this Lenten season is a way for us to figure that out: to be in the present and to be present with Christ. Are we ever more intimate, more personal, than when we are with God in our pain and suffering?

I am challenged by this proximity, most especially during this Lenten season. I am challenged to be in proximity to Christ, to my family, and to the community.

“[Lent] is a time to be proximate with one another and to teach our children what it means to give to others.”

— Emmjolee Mendoza Waters, B.A. 2001, M.S.W. 2009

Emmjolee Mendoza Waters enjoys a meal with students

One tradition our family has adopted to try and create this proximity is Family Fridays. Every Friday during Lent, we host a different family for a simple vegetarian meal and do a service project with our children. We make sandwiches for the Sunday Homeless Food Runs, which are run by Catholic University students. It has been a beautiful tradition for our family, and we look forward to resurrecting it post-pandemic.

It is a time to be proximate with one another and to teach our children what it means to give to others. It is an opportunity for us to extend our family to our community and in a small way to be proximate with the poor. It is a simple way to live prayer through our actions.

As we begin this Lenten season, I challenge all of us to find ways to listen to Ms. Willie and to give Lent its season, to be present to it, and allow it to be present back. I challenge us all to find ways to be proximate with Christ, our families, and with the other — the poor and marginalized. I pray that you may be filled with closeness to Christ this Lenten season.