[This religion column appeared in the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette on Sunday, March 8.]
Out in the Protestant church in the High Plains of Northwestern Kansas where I was raised, I don’t remember ever hearing the word Lent. When I went off to college, though, I discovered Lent by taking a small risk that I never have regretted.
It happened when I was studying at a small Christian college sponsored by the Independent Christian Church and Churches of Christ (the denomination of my youth). The little college is across the street from Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, where I had transferred from to study the Bible.
Most afternoons I went jogging, meandering across the K-State campus. My route took me by the St. Isidore’s Catholic Student Center, across the street from the K-State Union. One Ash Wednesday I jogged by the Catholic student center just as a couple of students were exiting, wearing black crosses on their foreheads.
The next day, quite tentatively, I walked over to the Catholic student center and stepped inside. A secretary warmly welcomed me and encouraged me to come by any time to study or just hang out.
When the secretary saw me standing in front of a framed copy of the Apostles’ Creed, she came over to me and asked me if I prayed the creed. “No,” I said, “I don’t know this.”
“Well let me introduce you to one of the most beautiful prayers in the Church,” she said, explaining that saints down through the centuries have prayed this creed. I found the creed beautiful. Ironically, one of my professors at the small college had just lectured on why he didn’t say the creeds. He said he believed they perpetuated sectarianism. At his next class, I asked him about his comment. I found his answer to be dismissive when he said, “We have no creed but faith in Jesus, Don. Don’t ever forget that.”
His words puzzled me and didn’t ring true. I found myself returning to St. Isidore’s student center to pray the Apostle’s Creed. Standing in front of the creed hanging on the wall. I let it sink into my soul and even started making the sign of the cross, something I could not imagine doing when I was growing up.
I never told anyone at the small Christian college what I did, but stepping into St.Isidore’s Catholic Student Center and praying the Apostles’ Creed inspired me and gave me hope. After I arrived on the UI campus as a campus minister, one day I wandered inside the Newman Center and the cavernous St. John’s Catholic Chapel at 6th and Armory in Champaign. To my delight, hanging on the wall near the front of the chapel was a large, ornate framed copy of the Apostle’s Creed.
Over the years I often met students at the Newman Center cafeteria. Often between appointments I would walk into the chapel and sit directly in front of the Apostle’s Creed, where I meditated, prayed and read. One day I told my friend Father David Turner that I liked to sit in the chapel next to the framed creed.
The next day the Benedictine priest serving the Newman Center students handed me a red, hardback version of the St. Jerome Edition of The New Catholic Study Bible. The presentation page says, “Presented to Donald D. Follis on Thanksgiving, 1985, by David Turner, O.S.B.” Handing me the Bible, he hugged me and said, “May God give you His richest blessings.”
This past Ash Wednesday on February 26, I spent 30 minutes in the chapel of First Presbyterian Church in Champaign meditating on Scriptures on the screen and pondering my mortality before finally walking to the front and receiving the imposition of ashes on my forehead. Pastor Matt Matthews spoke softly saying, “This cross reminds you of who you are and of whose you are.” He circled his thumb in a bowl of ashes before tracing a cross on my forehead as he said, “From dust you came and to dust you shall return.”
The first week of Lent I reflected each morning on the 40 days of the temptations of Jesus in the desert, thinking about the 40 days of Lent and what God wants to teach me during this season of Lent. Each morning I read Jesus’ answers to the devil’s temptations. “Man cannot live on bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God;” “Do not put the Lord your God to the test;” and “Go away, satan! The scripture says, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.’”
Today, the ornate copy of the Apostles’ Creed at St. John’s Chapel hangs in the hallway near the social hall on the lower level. I wonder if 40-some years later the Apostles’ Creed still hangs somewhere inside St. Isidore’s Catholic Student Center in Manhattan, Kansas. I can imagine standing there, praying the creed, making the sign of the cross and asking God to be merciful to me, a sinner.