This brief reflection on Lent is posted in between the two beginnings – Ash Wednesday, on February 17 this year, and Monday of Clean Week, on March 15.
Lent in 2021 is an outlier. Some of us are attending services more frequently, but many must remain home to minimize the risk of infection. Many congregations are still having virtual services, or broadcasting a livestream for those unable to attend in person.
Lent 2020: A Sabbath
When the coronavirus lockdown arrived last year, I described it as an opportunity. The stay-at-home orders forced us to stop. We did our best to teach, learn, and work remotely, but life changed instantaneously. Maybe this was a chance to embrace the spirit of Sabbath, of true rest.
We learned numerous lessons that continue to be reinforced as the pandemic burns, perhaps a bit more slowly now. One of those lessons is that it is hard to stop, and it is excruciatingly difficult to be still. It’s hard, but it’s still necessary to stop. As a Christian, the lesson I learned – again – is that I do not establish the schedule for when the pandemic ends. I’m not in charge. I am completely at the mercy of forces beyond my control. The only decision I can make is to cede whatever control I think I possess to God. And when I surrender control, I make myself vulnerable to his presence in the stillness of inactivity.
I failed this test miserably. I am a case study for violating the Sabbath. Give me idle time without traveling to a conference? I’ll walk an extra three miles a day, crank out another article, and submit it for publication. The lockdown inspired me to plan the next great conference, curriculum, inspiring speech, works of fiction and non-fiction. Stillness was replaced by unprecedented busyness.
The anxious energy to overcome the fear of stillness belongs to institutions as well as individual people. The Churches are complicit in making Lent as busy as possible. In normal circumstances, we fill the stillness with services. Have extra time on your hands? Gather more often as a community for prayer and Eucharist. Take advantage of Lent and learn more about your faith. Here, take these handouts and discuss them with your children. Make your home into a mini-church. The Churches have mastered the art of programming Lent.
Of course, many of these activities are both traditional and lifegiving. I’m not trying to diminish the importance of prayer and education. However, maybe the time has arrive for us to admit that we have over-programmed Lent. After all, don’t we need more active engagement during Lent to make sure that parish revenues make the forecast? We have constructed a system in which ministers’ livelihoods depend on maximum engagement of the season’s propers.
What’s lost in all of this is one of the original purposes of Lent: to take on a 40-day fast in the wilderness as Jesus did after his baptism.
Following the Holy Spirit into the Wilderness
Adopting this kind of Lent means that we allow the Holy Spirit to lead us into the wilderness for 40 days. Our time in the wilderness is simple. It’s quiet. It’s just you, me, the other creatures inhabiting the wilderness, and God. For 40 days, we confront the images of ourselves that we have constructed, and we reflect on their importance. We are no longer enslaved to time, because in the 40 days, we have entered into the presence of God where there is no time. In his presence, we are vulnerable – it may be that we shudder in horror at the images we have constructed of ourselves, at the vanity of our thoughts and hopes. Our cry of ‘woe is me!’ is not self-torture, but the revelation that the fiercest demon who sets stumbling blocks preventing me from success is me.
The 40-day sojourn into the wilderness is physically taxing. We strip away the burden of overeating and other pleasures so that we can be focused in confronting reality instead of illusion. It has nothing to do with becoming a temporary vegetarian! Following the Spirit into the wilderness for 40 days is spiritual detoxification. We follow the Spirit’s lead, inspired by Christ’s 40 days in the wilderness, because this time is designed to make us whole again.
St. Antony’s Journey into the Desert: A Liturgy of Reckoning
One of the most inspirational hagiographical accounts of the Christian tradition tells us of a man whose sojourn into the desert was inspired by Jesus’ invitation to sell everything you have, give it to the poor, and follow him (Mt. 19). St. Antony followed Jesus right into the desert. St. Athanasius’ account of the great ascetic tells us that Antony lived in the tombs and fought demons there. The fighting was so intense that he was physically beaten down, and exhausted.
The story says that the demons tempted St. Antony. Maybe his confrontation with himself was the source of these fierce battles with the demons. Is it not physically exhausting to be brutally honest with yourself, and to cede that precious control you have to God? It may very well be that the 40-day journey into the desert is a liturgy of reckoning with one’s self.
Now the skeptic reads this description and dismisses it as utopian. Who has the time to go into the wilderness for 40 days? We cannot leave work and family. It is also unethical to starve ourselves.
It is possible to adapt the 40 days in the wilderness to our lives. This year, we can reclaim Lent as a season devoted to stillness, to relinquishing our projects, schemes, schedules, and systems to devote realistic pockets of time to quiet space, to do nothing but sit in stillness and quiet, as long as it is feasible. If we try to embark on this journey, we will discover the truth about stillness experienced by St. Antony and all of those who laid everything else aside in pursuit of God. Enduring stillness and quiet, and having the patience to hear God speaking to us is hard work. It requires lots of patience, mercy, and it is physically exhausting. And it is also wise to maintain dialogue with friends and our spiritual elders; journeys are best taken with companions.
Lent does not lead to ‘Success’
I cannot promise you that embracing Lent as a journey into a quiet wilderness will bring you success. It won’t increase the number of people who become Christian. It won’t deliver a financial boost to parishes. An authentic Lent cannot be transformed into a concrete program for Church renewal that serves established systems.
Entering the silence of the divine presence can invite us into a process of prayer and vigil, temptation, and reckoning with ourselves that capacitates us to become whole again.
As Lent continues, or approaches, let us claim the inner meaning of Lent and begin the liturgy of reckoning that takes place in the stillness of God’s presence.
For further reading on the history of the origins of Lent, see Paul. F. Bradshaw and Maxwell E. Johnson, The Origins of Feasts, Fasts and Seasons in Early Christianity (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2011).