40 days of devotion
Today is the first day of Lent. In the Roman Catholic Tradition, this is the beginning of the 40 days of repentance that Christians participate in as they prepare to honor the death, and celebrate the resurrection of Christ, who died for the very sins that they/we are to spend our time repenting of. Beyond adding some heft to the act of atonement, Lent also offers, by way of voluntary deprivation, the opportunity for Christians try to symbolically partake in the experience of Jesus as he went through the mortification of betrayal, torture and death at the hands of the people he came to save.
In the Western Hemisphere, Lent takes place at the end of winter and beginning of spring- that in between time when the days are still dark and wet and muddy and cold, but when green things begin to shiver themselves out of the ground and poke out tentative, slyly defiant heads, and when birds begin to return to trees and the length of the sky moves slowly out of its winter shadow to show more blue, less night.
The combination of these two things- the felt sensation of experiencing the greening and renewal of the world even in the midst of its annual darkness and death, and the consideration of the psychological and spiritual deaths we experience as broken (or sinning, depending on your language) creatures who, nevertheless, have this opportunity to renew ourselves, to be whole- is a powerful thing. Or at least for me, always, each experience lends credence to the other. Growing up in a Christian world, I looked to the signs of spring as irrefutable evidence of Christ’s resurrection. It was like the crocuses and the baby ducks coming from their shells and the lady bugs and the leaves unfurling in increasingly relaxed spirals all pointed in this one direction- look, look, we come back to life and so did He (and so will you!).
Later in my life, when I learned that Easter doesn’t actually mark the actual anniversary of the resurrection (if there was a resurrection at all) but instead was celebrated at a time chosen to co-opt and replace the pre-existing pagan religions of europe at the time of its colonization by the roman (catholic) empire, it wasn’t so much that my mind was blown, as it was that the world sort of opened up a little bit to be a bit wider and richer and more complex than I had realized it was as a little kid growing up in a little town bounded on all sides by woods and fields, as far as I could see. But when I read that the earlier pagan traditions celebrated not the lofty experience of spiritual eternal life triumphing over physical death, but instead the far earthier miracle of birth- the bloody, messy ushering of helpless and naked life into this world, and the urgent desires that give that life shape- it took me a long, long while to reconcile these different celebrations. As I knew him from the stories of my childhood, Jesus was pretty uninterested in this whole aspect of existence- sex and pregnancies, woman’s bodies and men’s desires and the whole power of the erotic. How bizarre, to have this layered celebration, all eggs being laid by bunnies and men dying on crosses and resurrection into clouds and fertility. What a weird jumble. How could anyone make any sense of it? I’d look at the crocuses and the misty green in the trees and they weren’t fingers pointing anywhere, but question marks written in an old, old language I didn’t understand.
I’m thinking of this all now because, while I’m not a Catholic and kind of skeptical about the resurrection as a literal and specific event, I’m in a place in my life where I crave to celebrate Lent. Not because I am craving either atonement or deprivation (atonement is a lifelong process, really, along with healing, and isn’t anchored to a time of year, and deprivation is not so much the thing I’m going to do right now), but because I miss the intentionality of Lent, of a spiritual practice, of devoting yourself to something.
In this jumbled up season of life and death, the hereafter and the immediate right now, green bravery and the unpredictable grip of winter, there are so many ways to meditate, so many ways to instill a seed in oneself and tend it during the last, rich space of fertile pause. It strikes me that what I want to devote myself to these next forty days is not meditating on the ways I have failed or potentially ushered in the death of the son of god (again, a point I’m sort of dubious about anyway), but instead spend this time trying to focus, intentionally, on the various and specific aspects of the world that get presented to me in such a rush and bustle of any given day that I overlook them, move past them so quickly, and fail to take in the gifts as they are offered.
For the past three years, I’ve lost so much of the wonder and stillness I used to find in reflective writing. Ironically, since the entire crucible of graduate school certainly taught me better habits about writing, and lent me a kind of desperate discipline- but I’ve not used it in any kind of thoughtful or creative or joyful way in a while. Like the spiritual practices of walking or praying, writing has been something that has for years anchored me to the wonder and the beauty and the vulnerability of the world. It’s slowed me down at my most anxious and immediate, and helped me connect to whatever is deeper and most eternal, whatever is kindest and most hopeful in myself or the world. And in all the devotion to entirely other things, in the past three years I’ve lost track of all three.
This forty days ahead of me, I’m covenanting to spending forty minutes each day writing- perhaps my own form of atonement for getting out of practice, but I think of it more as reparative, honestly. More of an opening myself up and preparing myself for a part of me to grow and blossom that has been unfed, dormant. It’s more exciting than somber, to be totally honest.
But oh man, am I rusty! When I came up with this idea, it was so intimidating (that white page! All the words in my head just sort of trying to get out so fast they just get stuck somewhere in my nasal passage, making me feeling sneezy and choked!) that I spent a good solid two hours cleaning and preparing the space. (Not a bad idea- I’m writing in a tiny corner of our guest room, on an old steamer trunk, surrounded by little talismans of the people in my life and the parts of me that are so important to me- but that’s another topic for a different day :P). Then I wrote out the topics I could think of- things that happen throughout the day, things I’ve been wanting to honor in my life but haven’t somehow made a priority, ideas for story charecters, etc.
I’ve come up with forty different topics (and a jar to hold them in), and each day, at some point in the day, I’ll draw a new topic and meditate on it. Then, each night, for forty minutes (minimum!) I’ll just write. Some days fiction, some days poetry, most days this kind of free flow reflective. I’m going to put this up somewhere public (tonight or in a few days- hi everyone!) and so I want to be mindful about things long grammar and sentence structure: of what it means to be reading someone else’s thoughts. (And if you don’t read this, totally I do not feel offended. It can be weird reading the thoughts of people you know, right?)
But if you do read this, man oh man, I would love some accountability! (And prompts! If you send me a topic, I’ll add it to the little jar I have and if I pull it out, I will write about it!). (And if you do read this and ever want to talk about any of these things, well, these are all topics I’d love to talk about to anyone who likes talking with me about things :).
Whether this is a sacred season for you, or just March; whether you spend this time in deprivation or in hedonism or just living life, thank you for reading this and I hope things are going well.