I am seeing a common sentiment shared online recently, and in various ways it reads a little something like this:
“Considering all I’ve had to give up for the pandemic, I don’t need to give up anything else for Lent this year.”
The sentiment abounds. Believers deprived of seeing family and friends, deprived of the daily joys of going out and meeting with others, perhaps even of attending church, feel that in what has already been a long season of deprivation the harsh abstinence of Lent is…well, overkill.
But to my surprise, I find myself coming to the opposite conclusion.
The past six months have been a wild ride. I only fully realized last night how much has changed for me in a year. A year ago, there was no pandemic and life seemed mostly normal. A year ago, my mother (and my aunt) had not been diagnosed with cancer. A year ago, I went to church in person on Sundays and to dinners out with my husband and to go shopping for leisure. And now none of these things are true.
So I can acknowledge this has been a season of suffering and struggle for me as well as for many others. And I should also acknowledge that I am bad at suffering. In Prayer in the Night, Tish Harrison Warren acknowledges that her holiness meets its limit when she has a backache: that a lack of the comfortable, the good, and the pleasant erode her ability to bear the good fruit of faith and belief. I think we all share that trouble—or at least, I know I do.
I am patient, loving, and kind on my good days. But take away my comforts, my good health, my well-being or the presence of the people I love and I am impatient, irritable, frustrated. Desperate. Unsettled.
Lent is not about giving up something for the sake of giving up something. In its own small way, Lent is a small and disciplined practice in suffering. Lent forces us to deliberately encounter the uncomfortable, to take out of our live something we enjoy, so that we might meet God in the place of all the comforts and desires we have come to rely on.
When my mother was diagnosed with cancer, I experienced the sense of God lifting my head and saying, at that time, “Look only at me.” That command helped me through the darkest period of that time. Lent is a more ongoing, and concentrated, version of that experience: every time we encounter what we have given up, it is a reminder to lift our heads and look at God for what is needful, instead. Lent is a deliberate retraining of the heart, an acknowledgement that there is something we can learn from deprivation or discomfort, that there is something of God’s character and presence we can only know in moments of disquiet, pain, and lack.
For me, Lent is a cure for what the pandemic has diagnosed. I want to learn to suffer well.
And for me, that starts with consideration of the season itself. What I have chosen to give up for Lent this year is not insignificant for me, though it might be for many others. But as Ash Wednesday nears it occurs to me that approaching the fasting season with dread is exactly the opposite of the point.
Why shouldn’t I be delighted at the transformative opportunity for more time with God?
What am I deprived of, when God is what I get to choose in the absence of what I am giving up?
What does it mean if I approach a place of even small deprivation with delight, joy, and anticipation, because God Himself is my portion?
Those are the lessons I need to learn, want to learn. That is the change that I would like God to ignite in me. The answer to my struggle with a season like this is not necessarily less suffering or discomfort (although we can certainly pray and hope for that, knowing God often grants it). The answer to the time of discomfort is the recognition that if suffering must come, I will be equipped to meet God’s presence there. That I can experience joy there even if it comes with sorrow. That I can have the fundamental knowing that it will all, really, be reconciled in the end.
It is a hard truth, but not a joyless one. And for that reason, this year above all, I need the season of Lent, and I need Ash Wednesday. I want to get better at singing in the dark.