We have all heard the cliché: When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. But what about those of us who choose to drink the lemon water without the sugar?
I drink a glass of sugarless lemonade every morning before I consume my breakfast. One freshly squeezed lemon poured into my water is all it takes to draw out my puckered lips in expectation. I don’t even have to drink it before I make that sour face. Just looking at it makes me cringe, and yet I do it anyway. It has become a morning ritual for me. What once was a dreaded irritation has now become a joyful anticipation.
How can it be that something tasting so bitter, so disdainful, and so unpalatable can be so cleansing to my body? Yet it is. It travels throughout my body and rids it of toxins. Lemons possess incredible, natural antibacterial properties.
Though the lemon water tastes tart, I know it acts as a healing agent in my body. I can stave off colds that everyone else is picking up with ease. If I do catch something, I will heal more quickly. I cough less. I am more alert.
Drinking the sour tonic is a conscious act in which my will supersedes my senses.
So it is with our souls. At times we are asked to drink the bitter gall of suffering, and we can choose to comply with or deny this invitation. When we choose to say yes to our cross, we do so with full knowledge and consent of its distastefulness to our senses. Our bodies and souls cry out to flee the inevitable pain, and we cringe at the thought. And yet it is a decision – a decision of love – when we offer our fiat to God and accept the bitterness of suffering. We know somehow it will produce the sweet fruit of eternal life.
Lent is a necessary liturgical season, because we are intentionally mortifying our senses and ridding our lives of the transitory junk that seems to entangle us in its snare: food, television, our technological devices, bad habits, etc. Without Lent to remind us of the necessity of self-discipline, we would easily rationalize our habits without a second thought.
But the Church draws us into Herself once more, luring us with the gift of Mercy. We are healed when we pour out our hearts in the Sacrament of Reconciliation– much like pouring that glass of sour-tasting lemon water and taking the first sip. Permitting ourselves to engage in penitential behaviors may appear too harsh to the outside world. But we know better. We recognize the interior cleansing that our souls experience when we deny ourselves some trite pleasures – at least for a time.
In my youth, I used to recoil as Ash Wednesday approached. It was a time in which I was seemingly forced to surrender something I enjoyed, and I hated every moment of those long, forty days. As an adult, those sacrifices are still difficult, but my attitude toward them has changed. I no longer view the bitterness of the bodily mortification at face value. Instead, I look deeper at the authentic longing for my heart to swell in pure charity and for my soul to be one with Jesus.
The gift of Lent is not in what we have lost (no sugar in our lemonade), but rather in what we have discovered: the sweetness of sacrifice (the interior cleansing of drinking the tart lemon water).