The season always starts out with such zeal. About two days into it, I’m beginning to revise my expectations seriously. By now, mid-Lent, I’m barely holding on.
Do not misunderstand. It’s NOT that my Lenten disciplines are so arduous. Not at all. It’s just that my very real confrontation with the futility of them disheartens me. I abstain from things I enjoy very much, and can really only grumble about it and then find something else to satiate my cravings. I do a good act for someone in need, and effectively gut its value by congratulating myself and feeling all generous and pious. I desire goodness, but it always outruns me, and I can never catch up to it.
Each year, I face the inevitability of my own failure to achieve results. No Lenten honor roll. No kudos. Pass the ashes around again; I need another serving.
And then I’m driven back to the last resort: prayer. Which, I’m coming to believe, is the only real way to survive Lent. Or Easter. Or Ordinary Time. Or ordinary days. Or bad days. Or good days.
All I can do is ask. And wait. And say thank you. And say I’m sorry. And wait some more. I want to achieve, but all I can do is receive.
The French scientist and philosopher, Pascal, wrote about two different approaches to the quest for true understanding. The one he called l’esprit de géométrie, which was a spirit of rigorous attendance to rules, requirements, reasonable efforts. A “spirit of geometry”: lines, calculations, right answers, clear-cut methods. This is what I start with in Lent. A few rules I think I can keep. A few requirements of attitude and focus. A few reasonable efforts. This doesn’t get me very far. L’esprit de géométrie is only as potent an instrument of spiritual growth as I am strong in wielding it.
L’esprit de géométrie is about programming for an intended outcome and taking control of the results. It is about coercion and manipulation, and, when failure looms, feeling shame and guilt. We can take this esprit even into our prayers…
I remember as a child overhearing adults in our church talking about “prayer warriors.” “Ah, that Lydia, she’s a Prayer Warrior. She wrestles those situations to the ground. She takes command over them. She CONQUERS!!” Nothing against Lydia, mind you, but the warrior image just doesn’t work for me. It’s so proactive, practical, even coercive. (Perhaps the imagery is just wrapped up with Lydia. She and those solos she would sing made me quail inside.)
People ask, “Does prayer work?” Work? Work? No, of course it doesn’t “work”! It is work, but it doesn’t work. For prayer “to work,” it would have to be mechanical, predictable, scientific, replicable – geometric, even. Prayer doesn’t work – it’s completely unreasonable in that sense. Prayer doesn’t achieve. It doesn’t accomplish. It doesn’t succeed.
Pascal called the second approach l’esprit de finesse, a spirit of creative play, intuition, imagination; a spirit of open hands, a humble willingness to be unreasonable in expectation. And surely there is nothing so unreasonable as prayer. We ask, undeserving. We wait, knowing that our time is always short. We confess, knowing we deserve judgment. We listen, and there is silence. We speak, and our words are gathered into a cloud of unknowing.
But l’esprit de finesse and its readiness to receive whatever and whenever the good Lord chooses is the way of the Lenten quest. The fact that prayer doesn’t “work” does not mean that God doesn’t answer prayer. Answers are not outcomes. The very nature of request means that there is no absolute certainty, not even an assessment of probability. Probabilities are about the odds; possibilities are about God’s freedom and absolute goodness. It is not reasonable; it’s relational.
A spirit of finesse is a spirit of hope, even a spirit of hilarity in view of the impossibilities, unlikelinesses, and impracticalities of prayer.
So, by now in Lent, I’ve come to agree with the Tao: “We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.” All I can bring to the table is unfulfilled desire — emptiness, weakness, and failures — that become, in the depths of the soul, the terracotta form being shaped, and filled, by the divine Potter.