The Quiet of Lent
Every year when Lent begins, I feel unprepared. After all the feasts and parties of the recent holidays, I usually find myself around New Year’s needing to improve my diet and lose a few pounds, so I resolve to eat better and less and to get more exercise. Sometimes I even stick with this resolution for a respectable amount of time, but more often than not, within a month I have slipped back into my old bad habits and out of any new good ones. Before long, I realize that it is time to choose something to give up for Lent. The easy route, of course, would be to start over and re-resolve whatever resolution it was that didn’t take the first time, but my typical New Year’s pledges often seem inappropriate as Lenten disciplines.
It’s not that I couldn’t use some reform in my dietary habits. Most of us in the US and the rest of the developed world have strange relationships with food, drink, and our other indulgences. We live in a culture not only of abundance but of excess. We fill our refrigerators and pantries with more food than we can possibly eat before it spoils. And after we eat too much of that food, we diet and exercise to lose the extra weight we have put on. Sadly, these efforts to “live better” are usually just another form of self-indulgence, one that reinforces an obsession with our own physical and personal well-being. When I exercise more often, my health improves and I feel better, which are good things. But are we ever more isolated and focused on our own needs and wants than when we are pounding away on a treadmill, ear buds blocking out the rest of the world?
This is why simply continuing our New Year’s resolutions and re-branding them as Lenten discipline is a bad idea. We shouldn’t fast during Lent because we want to flatten our bellies and feel good about ourselves. The point is to give something up, not to work harder toward getting something we want. And even just giving up something is not the real point. In Lent, we set things aside because by doing so we open up space and possibility. During Lent, we create room for the presence of God in our lives. Instead of continuing to be led by our selfish desires and obsessions, we allow ourselves to be guided by the Spirit to become part of God’s work in the world.
Some of the authors in this issue ask us to use this Lent as an opportunity to focus on ends beyond ourselves. Norman Wirzba’s beautiful essay “Dramas of Love and Dirt” reminds us that as creatures of God we are dependent not only on other human beings but on the whole of creation, and that this means we must live in the world with a sense of humility and gratitude, even toward the soil under our feet. He calls for a Lenten discipline, inspired by the tradition of monastic contemplation, that will quiet selfish passions which contribute to fragmentation and distortion in the world. In “Practicing Restraint as Lenten Discipline,” David Lott also asks us to rethink our Lenten fasts. Drawing on the writings of theologian Sallie McFague, Lott suggests that during Lent we should experiment with new ways of living that embrace practices of both self-restraint and self-giving.
Beyond the topic of Lenten discipline, there is much of interest in this issue. In “A Conversation with Peter L. Berger,” an eminent sociologist discusses how his thinking about religion has changed over the course of his distinguished career. And in “Eggs: A Short History of Infertility and Ducks,” Kirsten Eve Beachy tells the story of how a typical “granola Mennonite” confronted the challenges of trying to bring new life—both avian and human—into the world.
Whether or not you practice a formal Lenten discipline, let this be a season of reflection and renewal. Let this be a time to recognize the noisy demands of the world and the impatient selfishness of our own passions as the distractions they are, and let us set them aside. In Lent, let us quiet the restlessness of our hearts, so that they might come to rest where true joy is found, in the love of God and all God’s creation.