It’s not that I disapprove secular expressions observance of Lent that have arisen in this century of sharply declining church membership. If someone wants to lose 10 pounds, or start their new novel, or try veganism, I tell them more power. And God knows I’m all for a social media fast.
Life is hard for all living beings. Making things more difficult – knowingly and voluntarily, even for a limited period of time – is a uniquely human exercise. We want to be better than we are. We want living to mean more than surviving. There is something truly beautiful about this pulse, whatever form it takes.
But as a new member of the Christian faithful without a church, what am I supposed to do with Lent? Surely there must be some spiritual practice that lies between a Church-ordained ritual and a secular project of perfectibility. Something that would help me use this time of prayer and reflection to move away from fears that I cannot shake – for my country, for my planet – and towards a stronger faith in the possibility of redemption, a more certain conviction that all is not yet lost in this deeply troubled world.
My maternal ancestors, all Protestants, strongly believed in starting the day with a prayer and an entry into the devotion of this season. But my idea of a daily spiritual practice is less a prayer written by someone else than a walk alone in the woods. A devotional isn’t what I’m looking for, and neither is another church’s Lenten program. Not yet anyway.
Honestly, I don’t know what I’m looking for.
Forty years ago I took a college course in philosophy of religion. I still have the manual, and I looked at what I underlined in that book, the passages that I carefully starred. Why did the girl that I was 40 years ago decide that certain passages should be marked with a star?
I signed up for the course because I was having my first crisis of faith. The class itself did nothing to clear up my confusion, and continually thinking about the questions that tormented me didn’t help either. I still worried. Still, I tried to figure out what I believed and why.
Then, one summer afternoon, months later, I was sitting in my parents’ garden, listening to a mockingbird sing. Suddenly, inexplicably, a feeling of peace came over me. A feeling of perfect and absolute peace. No reassuring voice accompanied him, and no words formed in my mind to explain it. But if there had been words, they would have been something like, “It’s OK. Do not worry. Its good.”