By the sweat of your brow
you shall eat bread,
Until you return to the ground,
from which you were taken;
For you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.
Man needs to see, he needs this kind of silent beholding which becomes a touching, if he is to become aware of the mysteries of God.
—Pope Benedict XVI
I really need Lent.
Let me tell you why.
Lent is raw.
It embraces suffering.
Lent is the antithesis of happy-go-lucky. It is rough-around-the-edges. It is not domesticated. Lent is John the Baptist in his wild-eyed, matted-haired, locust-munching glory. It is a brooding (even scowling) Hilaire Belloc, a sardonic Evelyn Waugh, and a painfully blunt Flannery O’Connor.
To steal from Flannery, Lent scoffs at the faith of electric blankets and starkly immerses itself in the God of the cross. It gives me permission to sit in the darkness, to furrow my brow, to feel gloom without temptation to despair. It is prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
Lent is Virgil’s fixed gaze upon the trembling Dante. Dante wants a safe way out of his present troubles and Virgil advises, “Thee it behoves to take another road.” To be sure, Virgil will help. But his way to paradise, of course, must first lead through hell.
Lent is the deposed King Richard II sitting amidst ashes and lamenting,
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth.
Let’s choose executors and talk of wills . . .
For heaven’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings.
Lent is a painful reminder of impotence in T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday,”
Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.
Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.
It is W.H. Auden’s crushing lament in Funeral Blues,
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come . . .
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
Lent is Hamlet’s deep gaze into the lifeless sockets of Yorick’s skull. At once a memento mori moment, Hamlet further endures an instance of profound grief upon realizing that these are the remains of his beloved jester—a surrogate father when his own was all-too-often occupied.
Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath
borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how
abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rims at
it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know
not how oft . . . To what base uses we may return, Horatio!
Lent is the season of Job. It enables me to endure righteously and muster the strength to seek an audience with God face to face. Stripped bare of pretense and artifice, Lent helps me embrace my nakedness and reminds me of my forgotten identity as a dignified child of God.
Lent is bitter herbs and stale, yeast-starved bread eaten on the run. It is menacing clouds and biting wind, thorns and cockle burrs. It is blisters and calluses from long roads in uncomfortable shoes. Lent is not the cheerful friend that pumps me up, but the troubled friend who sits with me in silence.
Lent is honest. Brutally. It admits to my brokenness. It acknowledges the reality of suffering and reclines silently in its mystery. It has no pat answers or cheery platitudes. It bitterly counsels me, for a season, to bear my stripes, not to overcome them. It is the liturgical season of adults: Lent takes it lumps and puts childish things away.
Lent tells us that our King suffered. Our strange, cryptic King—who offered love unparalleled and taught with fearsome wisdom—agonized in ways that are incomprehensible. This King—this broken man—did what no ideology or movement, fashion, or philosophy could do: he turned the screaming daggers and the executioner’s axe away from me—the deserving one—and upon himself.
Lent is the crucible and the forging fire.
But why does it have to be this way? What is the point?
Perhaps Georges Bernanos said it best in The Diary of a Country Priest: “Such distress, distress that has forgotten even its name, that has ceased to reason or to hope, that lays its tortured head at random, will awaken one day on the shoulder of Christ.”
You see, Lent was made for Easter. “Easter,” reminds Pope Benedict XVI, “is concerned with something unimaginable.” Lent purifies me—a decidedly harsh scrubbing—so that I may rediscover who I once was beneath the relentless grime of my sin. It rouses me from my self-centered torpor proclaiming, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light” (Eph. 5:14).
Once I am clean and awake, I can see—truly see. By day, I can climb the sun-splashed uplands and feel the kissing breeze upon my face. And in the night, the cool water will soothe my parched tongue and pleasant rest will comfort my weary bones. The suffering will be gone. The pain vanished. This is the story of Lent: purification and dying to self, redemption and rising to new life. It ends and begins anew with Love unfathomable.
To a small degree, Lent affords me the privilege of suffering. In suffering, I arrive at a greater simplicity. And in that simplicity, I can better see Christ.
That’s why I need Lent.
To find my way home.