This post was supposed to be about my Lenten fast: what I am giving up and why, only because, well, I am giving up social media—Facebook and Twitter—so it will be quite obvious. I wanted to detail the reasons, how I got here, and the way I roll my eyes at such an obviously twenty-something type of fast and cringe at its publicity. But then, this happened, and maybe the rest is alright unexplained.
Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday.
Growing up in a mode of faith that frowned upon anything resembling “works-based,” almost any discipline besides the vague, unguided imperative to “pray and read your Bible” bordered on working too hard for something that is gift. My concept of faithfulness was simply obedience to The Voice of God. When explanations were given for hearing The Voice of God, they were somewhat unhelpful or confusing: “it’s that thing in your gut that you don’t want to do,” “it is usually something embarrassing,” etc. (I had questions about the wide range of things that fit these criteria, but might not be the Voice of God.)
Despite these things, I still somehow knew people who fasted in some way for Lent–usually from sodas or candy or something they shouldn’t be doing too much of anyway. There was something about self-denial here, but it mostly sounded like a holier version of New Year’s resolutions to me.
As the years passed, my understanding broadened a little, possibilities peeked out of corners. I saw that maybe this could be more than earning, more than a secret way to lose 10 pounds in 40 days.
I could slowly see how fighting a habit, or starting a new one, with intention and faith could turn my fragmented, wayward self to the cross, to Him. It all still sounded abstract, but I like abstract things most days, so my heart tinkered with it quietly.
But then there is a second me, a second voice, that second-guesses my every motive. Sometimes, she’s helpful–she points out the selfishness and pride of my heart, and I can tell that she and the Holy Spirit have been talking when I wasn’t paying attention. Lots of other times, she sends me into a circular frenzy about my true intentions. It might be the kind of thing where you read the Beatitudes or something and try to mentally work through the causality of it all–“If I’m shooting for ‘poor in spirit’ to see God, am I actually being poor in spirit? How do you seek something like that without missing it entirely?” And so on. There is a bit of truth to this sort of thinking—saints don’t think they are saintly—but instead of putting one foot in front of the other, this sort of chicken-and-egg frenzy usually just paralyzes me.
Maybe you can see where I am going with all this, and why Lent has still never quite clicked for me, that I carry around these annoying hangups. I fear that doing something that feels so very against the grain as an unavoidably loud siren to spirituality will lead to arrogance, and I miss the point entirely. I will start feeling like I have done something very important, and self-denial will lost in the fray with everything else.
And this is what kept me from observing Lent last year especially. I stopped in my tracks, ignored what I think were holy nudges, and claimed the danger of my own heart over what I felt I was supposed to do. All of this was very silly anyway, because, in turn, I was secretly pleased that I had so astutely dodged the bullet of pride. That self-contradictory second voice again.
But even after last year’s Easter, my heart pricked when I thought of how deliberate I was in saying no. Every few months, I would find myself in a sort of Lent-countdown, knowing I would have to face it again. I wanted it to be different this time. But I think the final shift came with a conviction: “You only need a tiny scrap of time to move toward God,” from The Cloud of Unknowing, as quoted in Lauren Winner’s new book...which I have been quoting incessantly lately. And here, I will do it again, as Lauren describes the two-fold nature of these words:
The words slap. Busyness is not much of an excuse if it only takes a minute or two to move toward God.
But the Monk’s words console, too. For, of time and person, it seems that scraps are all I have to bring forward. That my ways of coming to God these days are all scraps.
The funny thing is that the latter part struck me as humbling, too–my efforts, my inconsistencies, my backward attempts to circumvent vices are but scrap and potsherds themselves. This shouldn’t be a surprise, as each inch I move feels like a floundering mystery anyway. But somehow, though my pride isn’t gone, and my heart still seeks to self-justify, in light of these words, the threat oddly seems less sharp.
I think I am learning, so very slowly—with Lent as well as a lot of other things—what it means to do the praxis without having to always dissect in theoria (or to know all of the Greek words, for that matter). I think I am learning what it means to put one foot in front of the other and still carry the questions around, as I learn their texture, feel their weight, and smooth them over with my thumb. I think I am learning what it means to pursue faithfulness despite fear, even if it is a fear of myself.
So this year, I will walk in Lent.