“There lives the dearest freshness deep down things” Gerard Manley Hopkins
Lent isn’t a ritual I grew up practicing, but one I’ve adopted in the last few years. The seasons of celebration, Christmas and Easter, are vital seasons of hope, especially for those who are suffering, but a season of quiet reflection and “bright sadness,” as Lent is often called, is the one where I find myself most comfortable. It is a season of contradiction: acknowledging our darkness, our need, and our humanness; and at the same time, it is a time of great hope and anticipation. Advent has this same potential with its beautiful imagery of light in darkness, but it’s sadly overwhelmed by Christmas carols playing on repeat from the day after Thanksgiving. In Lent, we begin by acknowledging our frailty, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return,” and we end with a celebration of resurrection. In between, there is the possibility of growth and transformation. Lent, literally “lengthen,” or “spring”, seems a much deeper and more lasting way back to our true selves and God than the celebratory New Years’ resolutions we make just a few months earlier.
Lent is not just a time of self-denial for the sake of it. It’s a time of preparation, not self-help or self-improvement. For me, it’s a time of agere contra- the Ignatian concept literally meaning, “to act against.” We turn away from the things in our lives that are not life-giving, and in so doing, have the chance to find true sustenance and nourishment. The very fact that Lent is a time of anticipation and reflection rather than a celebration very much goes against what we’re accustomed to as a society. We judge ourselves as worthy or productive each day by the number of things we’ve checked off on our to-do lists. The test scores of small children are weighed more heavily than the thrill of learning. We celebrate our achievements and share them loudly and proudly on social media-not the grueling search and buying process of a new home, or the months of job searching, the visits to the marriage counselor, or the devastating miscarriage, but the new house, new job, wedding anniversary, adorable pregnancy announcement. We put them on display as if we’re accepting an award. “Congratulations!” “Wow- so happy for you guys!”
But looking back, the most pure and joyful times in my own life have been the seasons of anticipation and preparation- the year of my engagement and the nine months of my pregnancy with my daughter. There is beauty and solemnness in the process of preparation- the trying on of white gowns behind mirrored doors, the folding of tiny clothes tucked in dresser drawers, and even the silent growing of hands, fingers, and toes. Process is earthy. Artists understand it. And it’s not something you need share. It’s usually best kept hidden. After I bought it, I used to try my veil on a few times a week in the mirror of my childhood room to see myself suddenly a bride- my eyes filling with tears. My husband used to pick up a tiny baby bear suit he bought our child before she was born and rock it in his arms pretending to be looking at her. In process and anticipation we come to terms with the gravity of something. We feel its weight. But only if we make space for this kind of reflection- only if we spend time putting on the veil, taking a moment to wash and fold the new baby clothes and imagine that soon a new human being will reside in them.
Sometimes we make space by giving something up that is usually a distraction. If I give up scrolling down Facebook a few times a day, I may suddenly find after I check my email, I am sitting with nowhere to scroll – no never-ending account to pass the time but my own thoughts- however uncomfortable that might be. If I decide to give up anxiety- every time I veer toward my usual habit of worry and then stop myself, I am confronted with why I worry and why it is serving me in some way. Our lives are considered successful in worldly terms if they are “full”- if we are running off to the next activity and mostly tired. But making space means there is room for new things. I tell my daughter as we sort through her toys, “Maybe if we donate this, there’ll be room for something new!” There is no lack of books on how to de-clutter or simplify your space these days, but there are few about how to find this kind of internal space. Even churches with their new buildings and high tech multi-media displays are missing the mark. A growing interest in mindfulness and meditation though, suggests people are hungry for this kind of space in their “full” lives.
In an exercise video I have, the teacher tells me, “If you start to feel tired, blow out the air from your lungs, and you’ll get a burst of energy.” During Lent, I stop holding my breath. I exhale until Easter. Before we eat dinner, together we take two deep breaths and give thanks. We make space. At first this takes some effort, but after just a few times, it feels unnatural to sit down after a busy day of activity and the multi-tasking act of cooking and just start eating without that pause. The Indian doctor who taught the mindfulness class I took last year tells us in between the moment we’re about to explode in anger and road rage, there is a space. We can take one breath and pause before we react in a way we might regret.
In Lent I carry that space more consciously. I guard it from filling up with things that don’t last, and surrender it to those that do. I let go of all of the distractions I use to numb myself to my humanness. Without the clutter, I feel the weight of my frailty, the extent of my lostness, and the possibility of newness. I put aside the striving of to-do lists and achievements, and the burst of energy comes. I try on the veil, fold the tiny infant clothes, and I wait in hope. A different kind of hope based, as Henri Nowen puts it so well, “on the premise that the other gives only what is good. Hope includes an openness by which you wait for the other to make his loving promise come true, even though you never know when, where or how this might happen.” I am not full, but exposed and open. And yet, in that space I find I am gracefully and lovingly held, the same way our planet sits so vulnerably and so purposefully suspended in space we have yet to find the end of.