Leaving the cathedral after Ash Wednesday services last week, Craig and I were approached by a young man wearing a hoodie and carrying a skateboard—someone I’d expect to see on Haight Street, not Nob Hill.
“Excuse me,” he said. “Can I ask you something?”
Maybe he wanted bus directions or a handout. Instead he asked, “When does Lent begin?”
“Today,” we told him.
“Oh.” He looked stricken. “I don’t know what I’m giving up yet.”
“That’s OK,” I said, to myself as much as to him. “You have six weeks. Thinking about it is the first step.”
He brightened. “Yeah?”
“It’s all about intentionality,” Craig added.
“Thank you,” the young man said, and smiled. “God bless.”
Why do we always focus so much on what to give up during Lent, rather than what to take on? Fasting is only one part of a holy Lent, according to the guidelines printed on the front cover of the Ash Wednesday bulletin; the others are prayer and alms-giving, both of which involve, for many of us, actions not usually part of our daily lives.
And when we do give up, we think of creature comforts. Wine, chocolate, caffeine (the latter for some of us pure necessity).
But what about giving up those habits or tendencies that pull us away from God, from one another? For me, this might be my snippy tone at the end of an email to the neighbors about the unsorted recycling left in the garage, or the habit I have of asking someone a question only to answer it myself. I’ve always been put off by glib chit-chat, and yet silence with others can scare me. What might come out? I’m better than I used to be, more able to sit without speaking—but I could benefit from practicing what Evelyn Underhill, in a letter to a spiritual directee, called “the hair shirt of the tongue.”
Last August, attending the Glen Workshop in Santa Fe, I brought my laptop and an Ethernet cord. I logged on once a day. Colleagues and friends knew that I was away, but still—I was struck by how a task usually taking four or five iterations at home was finished in an hour or less. I still had time to lie on the lawn and read a book, or mark up a manuscript, or stare into space. I had no groceries to shop for, no dishes to wash, no laundry to do. Back home, those tasks and myriad other duties interject themselves into the same number of hours that felt so open and spacious in Santa Fe.
Once home, I decided to limit my email time to once a day. A different kind of silence emerged.
One Sunday in January, I went for a long walk. I was in Scotland, having traveled there to bring my nephew home from university. As I walked, I fretted over the upcoming period of uncertainty, over how to help my nephew and how to stay grounded myself.
On the last leg of my walk, a word popped into my head, just like that: Listen.
I suddenly saw how I didn’t have to fix everything with my words and advice. I couldn’t. I thought of the serenity prayer, and calm saturated my body.
Back home, of course, I got subsumed in wedding planning, in strategizing, in discussions (too many) about what my nephew would do next. I reached overload.
Just about the time of Ash Wednesday, actually. I spent Shrove Tuesday not hungry but peckish in another way: cranky, rushed, angry. All with good reason, I suppose, but there’s often good reason. I got into a frustrating, circular argument with my nephew over money and his negligence in cleaning out the cat box. When he gave a new twist on evading responsibility for his failure at school, I snapped.
Craig had gone to sleep and, not wanting to wake him, I sat on the toilet with the seat down and cried. I felt depleted, frayed, hopeless. Not at all ready for the next day.
But it dawned, pink and hazy. Ash Wednesday. I went to services at six p.m. and bent my head and got my imposition of ashes. And I remembered silence and serenity—not as abstract feel-good concepts but as real, grounded ways of being and of connection.
Lent is about remembering, and in that act, turning back. Teshuvah, the Jewish custom of repentance and atonement during the forty days leading up to Yom Kippur (sound familiar?), is often translated as “turning,” as in turning back to God, to what matters. In the words of Psalm 90: “You turn us back to the dust and say, ‘Go back, O child of earth.’”
Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.