February 20, 2012
Lent: A Time to Pay Attention
Lent is a season that does not exist for itself. It is a season that exists for Easter. The point of Lent is not to be a 40-day period of feeling bad about oneself. The point of Lent is to prepare oneself for the joys and glories of Easter.
Lent began in the early days of Christianity as a period of preparation for Baptism at Easter. Originally, those converted to the faith were excluded from the full worship life of the church and were prepared, during the Lenten season, for their Baptism. The season took hold as part of the church's liturgical year, even after Christianity became Rome's official religion and Baptism moved from an adult to an infant rite. Over time, Lent became thought of as a penitential season, and its purpose moved from one of instruction to one of atonement.
One of the great byproducts of the liturgical scholarship that produced the 1979 Prayer Book was a renewed understanding of Lent in its earliest form and a desire to return to a more comprehensive understanding of the season. So "giving something up for Lent" was amplified by the idea that it was also possible to "take something on" during the season as well. Our Prayer Book describes the season as a time not only of prayer and fasting but also as one for renewed study and ministry. So for us Lent is a time both to abstain and to try on. For some of us that trying on will mean reading, studying, reflecting. For others it will mean serving others in ministry.
One of my favorite Psalm verses is also used as a Lenten antiphon by the Order of the Holy Cross, the monastic community of which I am an associate. It goes like this:
Turn my eyes from watching what is worthless; *
give me life in your ways. [Psalm 119.37]
I use this phrase as a kind of mantra during the Lenten season. It helps me remember that the point of Lent is not about feeling guilty. The point of Lent is to refocus my attention.
To say that I spend most of my time "watching what is worthless" is to say that a fundamental problem of being human concerns our tendency to be easily distracted. Most of our waking hours are spent thinking about things that seem important but do not ultimately matter. Having a regular prayer life is a way of structuring time in such a way that maybe 30 minutes of the day will be spent attending to what actually counts.
Even at this late date, I'm not exactly sure what form my own Lenten observance will take. Some years I give something up. Some years I immerse myself in study of a Bible book or theological project. Some years I volunteer in some kind of special ministry of service. I can't say I always do all three. But I can say that Psalm 119's mantra-turning my eyes from watching what is worthless-is always in my mind.
This little poem by Emily Dickinson has also become an important part of my Lenten observance:
Italicize its sweetness,
The men that daily live
Would stand so deep in joy
That it would clog the cogs
Of that revolving reason
Whose esoteric belt
Protects our sanity.
What she means, I believe, is that life is short, and that its sweetness is so brief and intense that we defend ourselves from taking in life in all its beauty. If we were fully open to the radiance of life, we would "stand so deep in joy" that we wouldn't be able to get anything done. So we protect ourselves from life's transcendence by putting blinders on. Doing so allows us to go about our business. But it also keeps us from experiencing ourselves or the world as God intends.
As Lent approaches, I encourage you ask that God turn your eyes from watching what is worthless-to put down the laptop, the smartphone, the iPod and attend to God and God's world and your own inner life in all their radiance. As poet Jane Hirschfield says," You don't have to add anything to reality to feel awe, or to feel respect, or to see the radiance of existence. Radiance simply is."
Let your Lent be a time to experience radiance. Turn your eyes from watching what is worthless. Let God and life's sweetness in by giving up, taking on, or serving. And do it in the service of Easter and its implications for all of us and the world.