Failing at Lent
I’m one of those people who thrives on routine, plans and schedules.
I love the predictable clicking by of the liturgical calendar, marking the seasons of our souls through Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost and back to Advent again.
For years I have lived with a Rule of Life that shifts at each new season, taking on a different spiritual practice to keep the rhythm of my devotions fresh and honest. This Lent I am back to reading Morning Prayer and saying Compline each day- leaning into structured prayers and the progression of books in Scripture- after an Epiphanytide of open contemplative prayer.
Lent asks more of us.
Lent is a season of special devotion in which we are asked to prepare for Easter through acts of penitence and fasting. We are asked to hold up the mirror and take a long look at ourselves- our actions, motivations, desires, and identity as disciples. We are called to deny ourselves things (through which our attention and purpose is sharpened) and to use Holy Scripture and the practice of prayer to “accomplish” the tasks of Lent.
I love a good challenge. I never played sports in high school or college. I was never on a team, but something tells me that if I had been, it would have been dangerous! I am a little competitive, it turns out. Mostly, I compete against myself- running marathons, setting goals for how many books I will read, giving up alcohol or meat for a year, recording how much protein and calcium I eat in a day. It’s exhausting, sometimes. But Lent- and its 40-day challenge? That’s right in my wheelhouse!
I plan, first, the “self-denial” part. Since childhood, I have done the “giving something up for Lent” practice as encouraged in our household by my mother. My mother generally went the route of giving up a foodstuff that she loved- potatoes, or bread, or cheese for 40 days. And so, I’ve carried that on. Bread. Sugar. Alcohol. Meat. Dessert. Chocolate. Each year it’s different.
And, while I don’t usually subscribe to the “taking something on” part- (this seems to be a new trend in recent years) I have used Lent as a season for reforming myself- kind of like a “do-over” of the New Year’s Resolutions I’ve set but that have fallen by the wayside by February.
And so, silly things come on board- like keeping my desk at home clean and organized. Cleaning the refrigerator. Using up all the leftovers. Hanging up my coat when I come home.
Now, honestly. I don’t think that God gives a fiddle if I hang up my coat or not. There is a perfectly good bench in the dining room near the front door that just aches to hold my coat all night.
This year’s 2021 customized Lenten package includes:
- Morning Prayer and Compline
- Regular, consistent, daily journaling
- Giving up
- In depth Bible Study each week
- Reading at night instead of Netflix or TV
- Cooking my way through our overstuffed pantry and freezer
I’m failing at Lent. Just two and a half-weeks in, and I can’t do it.
I’ve been good about the prayer part, and scripture study. That is refreshing and nourishing.
But I only get to my day-book (journal) about every other day, and I didn’t even make it through my Ash Wednesday fast without eating bread as soon as the sun slipped below the hill (I always fast from sunup to sundown on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday) and so, as I stood at the kitchen counter, ravenous after a day of fasting with a piece of homemade bread in my mouth watching the sunset, I thought, “OK, forget the giving-up-bread-thing. I’ll give up sweets, instead.” Two days later, I had a few Girl Scout cookies. I’ve been reading some good books, too, but on about night 6 of Lent after a really rough day at work, I fell into bed too tired to read and too worked up to close my eyes, and so I switched on HGTV to lull me into sleep. And the “cooking my way through the pantry?” Oh, that’s going really well- I’ve used up half bags of lentils, barley, dried beans, almost-empty boxes of pasta, frozen peas, frozen chicken stock, weird stuff like canned salmon and kippers, but after a week of casseroles (that’s what works best, it turns out, with all these random ingredients) and no cheese left in the house, I broke down and got a couple of New York strips, some sharp cheddar and some fresh green beans.
Maybe it’s Covid.
Certainly it’s Covid.
Someone quipped the other day that this would be the “Lentiest lent we’ve ever lented.”
And so, I’m not giving myself a pass on Lent, but I am re-thinking it, and wondering what it the holy thing to do?
If the purpose of Lent is to prepare for Easter, and to draw closer to God, then how can I do it given that this year I (we) am (are) entering this season pretty well emotionally depleted?
What if I just stopped trying, and leaned into grace?
You know, grace- the undeserved gift of God’s love, freely given.
What if, instead of making Lent my own holy game of Chutes and Ladders with its daily accomplishments moving me up the ladder, closer to God (one bag of lima beans used up! One handful of chocolate chips, avoided!) and its failures dragging me down the chute (coat on the chair, empty pages in the journal)… what if, instead of trying to get somewhere, I simply stopped.. and noticed the abundant love of God, the grace of God, and the mercy of God that is around me and available to me every single day, no matter what the liturgical season?
How about that?
It’s the anti-Lent, I know.
One of my favorite images of God, as I sometimes imagine God, is of a giant, soft-strong being, gender-less, into whose lap I can crawl and sit, with God’s arms around me, sheltered from the storm. The psalms that talk about God as a “shelter, a castle, a crag to keep me safe” (paraphrase- Psalms 18, 31, 70, 71, eg.) appeal to me when I am feeling wearied by the changes and chances of life. This is not my only image of God, but in these Covid-worn days, it is one that I come back to again and again.
So, I wonder what it would be like to put down the Lenten bean-counting of good deeds and self-improvement, crawl into the lap of God, and rest in the assurance of my belovedness, just the way I am?
That seems like it might be harder than finishing up the packets of ramen noodles from last year’s camping trip or finding a coat hanger in the front closet.
How about it?