When a bubble of nostril-searing, ultra-chilly northern air settled over Kansas around the same time as Lent began, I wasn’t sure how I would make it through this season of repentance and introspection. It seemed like too much in a year that had already begun too furiously. February felt coiled and threatening. I wanted to hang onto something in a season of letting go.
But here we are, Lent taking us beyond ourselves by its sheer, plodding regularity. It is. Now. And the only way to escape the now is to… Well, there’s really no escape, not even through a chocolate chip cookie, which I have given up in my bourgeois little asceticism. More important is to be present to this time and space that the Christian calendar has so wisely prescribed. Venture into the desert, at least a few feet. Let its grit sand your corners. Sandblast you. Sit. Breathe. Pray. Above all, be silent.
I tend to surround myself with words during Lent: a devotional, a book, a blog (here’s one more). They’re very fine words. But heaps of words won’t get us where we need to go. What we really need is an encounter with the living Christ. Silence predisposes us to that encounter. Words, even the loveliest, require us to enter an analytical headspace when what we most need is receptivity. And certain kinds of words always risk becoming distractions.
Silence reminds us that Lent is a grace, not a work. Christ is the one who has led us here. Christ knows us, and he’s using Lent to frack our subterranean hearts. What might come up if we sit steadily before him in silent prayer? Something. Some anger or unforgiveness or lust will surface. Some fear will grasp us. We’ll make our excuses. But he knows who we are and what we need to bring out into the open in order to experience transformation and healing.
What comes up for me right now when I enter Lenten silence is grief. There’s plenty of grief to go around these days, with all that’s happened in our nation, and with things going sideways 10,000 ways in Ethiopia and Hong Kong and Myanmar and Nagorno-Karabakh. Even those are just the darkly charismatic crises that get the big stage air time. There are more and subtler. And closer to home we face the usual stuff of life and death: like three funerals squeezed into my congregation in four weeks. You, of course, will have your own. And I shall not mention a certain microscopic spiky ball of doom.
To experience grief before the brokenness of the world can be the beginning of a woke wisdom that refuses to live in the bubble (so 2017, right?). Here’s your red pill. But the real power of Lent comes from the way that it refuses to let us externalize evil. The torn places run right down and through us. We’re compelled to look at our own hearts, tangled in our own complicities, before we get too hung up on somebody else’s evil out there.
To enter Lent with silence is to begin to receive it as a gift. It’s to take refuge in Christ who calls us through and beyond ourselves. He carries us toward hope: Easter is coming!