From annoyance to love

Coming to appreciate the wilderness time of Lent
March 1, 2006

There was a time when I considered the season of Lent to be a very great annoyance, an interminable 40 days of earnest soul-searching, deprivation of favorite treats and, at least for the implacably Anglo-Catholic, an adherence to the rules of fasting that only can be described as bullheaded.

It took me some years to understand that for me -- I make no judgment of others -- the end result of this marathon was an inward-turning self-absorption, a truly stultifying focus on the rules of fasting and an enormous relief when it was over for another 11 months. Only when I had managed to get past this futile exercise in self-defeat could I begin to first understand this astonishing season and, at last, begin to love it.

I love Lent because I have come to see it as a time that is somehow outside of time, a journey on which we ride suspended between the place we have left and the place we have not yet arrived. For Lent is not only a time. It is also a place -- a desolate and cold place, perhaps, but, like all the great barrens of earth, filled with its own stark purity.

To enter this wilderness and to live there for 40 days requires an equal purity of spirit -- not the purity of rectitude or righteousness but rather, paradoxically, the abandonment of them. Lent asks something simpler, and harder, of us -- a willingness to drop and walk away from all the baggage we carry through the world, to leave and never look back at the adjustments, the rationalizations, the subterfuges we hide even from ourselves.

Lent asks us to be nothing, nothing at all, but the soul that God “beholds with merciful eyes.” It is freedom without limit, with no constraint but love, and it is a hard thing for most of us to endure.

I love Lent because it is a refuge from weariness and a healing place for grief. Lent breaks down the barriers we tend so carefully against pain. There is room in Lent for all the tears in the world, for all the weight of sorrow. We gather it all, we weep for it, we give it into the hands of God.

For God is here, alive in this darkness as surely and as truly as in the light. When we have come to know this, then the song begins, ancient and true, finding its way into our being and making for itself a home. And the darkness and the cold and the desert purity are made holy by it.

I love Lent because it is a time of death and a time of life and a time of mystery. When we give ourselves to what Chesterton called “the thing on the blind side of the heart,” we find the great silences, we enter into a broad acceptance. When we consent to be enfolded by mystery, we find the truth that Eckhart wrote: “When I am truly empty, then God by his very nature must come and fill me.” For we are empty only as the stream flowing downhill is empty; we die to ourselves only as the seed must sleep in the earth in order to break forth into new life.

And I love Lent most of all for its ending, its spectacular plunge into a knowledge too large for the mind, a truth hidden in light too bright for seeing, an arrival at a home we never knew was waiting, and an unfailing promise that death is a great mystery -- but life is a greater one.

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