This is the Lent we will never forget.
I think every Christian feels the same way this year: we’ve had the Lent we never asked for, and certainly one that we never expected. This may sound wrong to say this during a pandemic, but it’s true: this year was my best Lent ever, and it’s undeniably true that the worldwide coronavirus pandemic has been the impetus for my Lenten spiritual renewal. It took a worldwide crisis for me to actually begin to see what Lent is meant to be: a turning away from myself and my endless need for self-analysis to seek the God Who Is. I’ve always thought that living Lent “well,” if such a thing is possible, was just too impossibly hard. This year, with the entire world suffering at levels we never imagined, spoiled first world Christians like me met the Lent that finally brought us to our knees. I think that it’s fair to say that the most intense experience of an entire life-time, for most of us, has given us a chance to live Lent as never before.
The beginning of Lent used to present a mental tug-of -war: what exactly should I ” give up”; what exactly should I “add-on?” I was forever scrambling to figure it out, and to choose just enough “to do” so that I could only fail just a little bit. Because, face it, I would always fail.
Accepting failure in the spiritual life has been a lesson in itself, for me, Yes, I fail, because, without Jesus, I can not live up to even the most basic standards of spiritual practice. The answer each year is the same, and one I welcome: I need Jesus, and I need to learn that every year. So the key to choosing how I enter into Lent, in recent years, has not been weighted with decision-making. I’ve come to learn the wisdom of the Lenten trifecta: prayer, almsgiving, fasting. Use that simple formula and make a fairly simple plan, just difficult enough to ensure some system failure. That’s the only way that I know that I’ve asked enough of myself.
Admittedly, fasting, at least from certain foods, belongs at the end of my list, because, I’m sorry to say, I spend so much of my year trying to engage in intermittent fasting for managing my weight, that it makes it only marginally meaningful for me to give up anything else. That is to say, that I’ve spent so much time giving up foods for me, that it’s difficult to consider what foods to give up for Jesus. So yes, I gave up coffee and wine, and this year I tried to actually eat more vegetables. I didn’t even bother to put chocolate on the list for consideration, because when I dwell on it, then I’m so much more likely to have a piece. Perversely, telling myself that I can have a piece is a pretty good way of helping me to steer clear. No, I’m not trying to pull a fast one on God ( I tell myself). I’m trying to outmaneuver my own oppositional nature. Sure Lord, you be in charge–I’ll comply!–but you don’t need to be the boss of me. At least I recognize the source of those pesky stubborn streaks in each one of my kids. Let’s call it something seemingly benign–unnecessary pride—and let’s just say it’s an unfortunate generational spirit that I passed on to them.
But fasting means other things, as well, and so I worked hard during this Lent to fast from defensiveness and my need for affirmation, and all the other little selfish sins of my pitiful pride. Lord, it felt good to let go of that nonsense. It felt good to remind myself that He really does have my back. If I don’t snap back at someone, it doesn’t make the insult of a particular slight sting more, it actually makes it sting less. Ah, I see, so forgiving others really is the key to being able to repent, and to allowing God to forgive me. The circular nature of it surprises me, and I can’t believe it took me so long to get this: If I can forgive others (and I mean just do it, whether I want to or not) then that very act, a small act really, allows my inner spirit to stay still long enough to see myself as I really am.
And when I can give myself over to this process, then I truly am sorry for my own sins. It’s not so incredibly difficult as I once thought. At least it’s getting easier. When I really allow God into the scene to forgive me (not worrying at the moment about the other sinner who’s in the mix with me) well then I’m in the business of changing my heart, and my direction as well. And then, of course, I’ve become a more forgiving person, at least for today. And there’s the circle back to how I treat others. But now I’m also moving forward in the business of repentance, or of course metanoia, as my Bible commentary smartly informs me. The very Greekness of the word gives me hope, sounding so impressive and mysterious, that I’m now convinced that I really am on the path to changing the things about my life that need to be changed. Because through God’s grace this Lent, I am.
Here’s another way to look at it: My hairdresser has a little framed saying that sits on the table between the dryers in her salon, It says, “Let That Shit Go.” It’s probably not the way Jesus would say it, but it always makes me smile, because it really does have an ironic ring of gospel truth—well, at least with a little “g.” And if you don’t have a stylist or a barber with a sound life philosophy, you should really think about getting one. Because I’ve had some truly meaningful conversations about mercy and forgiveness while getting my hair colored and cut.
But God knows my stubborn reliance on my petty faults better than my hairdresser, and I talk to him about that everyday when I’m taking a long walk. My “me” time away from the house has been an excellent chance in the past month to have “God” time. And so I clip along listening to my daily prayer app (Pray as You Go) and my new coronatide add-on, the Divine Mercy Chaplet in song. Five cycles of prayer, just like a rosary, so that I can dedicate one round to each to my five children. (Catholic mothers of five appreciate this lovely arrangement when they’re praying.) And then, of course, I hang all kinds of other prayers onto each one of the rounds— from my husband and grandkids, to all medical workers and the sick, and then our dear friends and family far and wide, and those who are isolated and lonely, and all of our priests, and all of our beloved deceased. Over and over, in a beautiful refrain, the Chaplet offers the prayer, “Have mercy on us, and on the whole world.”
So as much as I may not like it, I have the pandemic to tank for my spiritual ardor this Lenten season. Covid-19–is the curse, or the penance, that no one saw coming. The one that we never wanted to embrace, but the one we were given, nonetheless. And so now my prayer life has intensified as never before. Has the whole world turned to prayer, now? No, but still, we are many. Well then, we’re compelled to turn every moment into prayer, as we don our masks and wipe down the counters once again, just as much as when we pick up our Bibles and prayerbooks. Especially now in our helplessness, there is so much to do,
And so most days I circle the neighborhood, where, blessedly, we’re still allowed to walk freely, though at a distance from one another. My petitions aren’t always in any particular order, and I wonder from day to day what is best, to offer my best attempts at “properly” worded prayers, to be really specific and intentional, or just to bring all of these people before my mind’s eye as I cast all of our cares on the Almighty. I mean truly, just raise a bucket of anxiety about what the future holds and heave it toward the sky. I’m casting, but I think he’s calling, and I believe he’s calling to us all. I just pray that whole multitudes are listening.
It’s the listening that has me concerned and that gives me hope to move forward. In effect, I’m all ears. All I want to do when I’m out there with my walking shoes and my prayers is to do a better job of hearing what the God has to say. “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.” That’s the only part of this whole life-altering, world-wide disaster over which I have any control. As we pass through Good Friday sorrow and enter into Easter joy, I know that this Easter, as always, He loves the whole world beyond all telling. That’s been God’s gift to me during this long and blessed and terrible Lent. I’m praying for the church, and for the world, that we will all be willing to repent, to turn, and to listen to what he has to say. I pray that after this long Lent we will be willing to turn our hearts to Easter, and that we will , at long last, be willing to accept the love that he offers us: For the sake of his sorrowful passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.
If only we would have ears to hear.