Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent on the church year calendar. For this blog, though, it is an anniversary, since it was Ash Wednesday 2013 when I wrote my first post. The liturgical date that year fell even earlier on the calendar: February 13 the archives tell me. I had burning within me to convey the story of the first time I participated in an Ash Wednesday service, including the ritual of imposing ashes. Eight years later, now an Episcopal priest, I find deep joy in reading the story of My First Ashes which poured from me before I had any inklings that I would be discerning a call to ordained life. It is, for me, a reminder that God is always working in us and in the world even (and perhaps especially) when we aren’t aware of it.
This morning, one particular thing that I wrote in that first blog post stands out to me, “I just headed down the dark stairwell to the basement where no one ever went.”
I had to stop right there and ponder that. If you read the whole post, you’ll note that the service I participated in happened to take place in a chapel in the basement of a dorm where I lived. I was even attending a religiously affiliated school, but we never went there. Even now, when I draw my mind to remember the space, it is mysterious. I still see those dimly lit stairs leading to a room which was dark and sparse. I can’t draw up details of what it looked like, except for a few chairs in a circle, and then kneeling at a small altar rail to receive ashes. But in that space, my spirit was stirred. It ignited something that has been burning in my soul ever since.
This year, that is how Lent feels to me. As some of my friends and colleagues have said, it feels like we’ve been living in a year-long lent as we’ve navigated this global pandemic, and struggled for racial justice, and began reckoning with things we have too long ignored. On many levels, that feeling rings absolutely true. There has been such a pattern of giving up, doing without, setting aside, calling ourselves in and wandering through an emotional desert that is has begun to feel familiar. Like living in a dorm, we know it’s not home. It isn’t normal, but we fall into a pattern of normalcy. And if we aren’t careful it all goes back to a pattern that circles around and repeats.
So, shaking ourselves up from the way we’ve accepted things to be right now, we are invited to keep a holy lent. What does that even mean? We are starting in a different place, now. We are invited to go somewhere that is already right here with us, but into which we’ve never gone. We are invited, if we choose, to descend into spaces of our lives we know are there but from which the busy comings and goings of our lives keep us from knowing, or seeing, or experiencing.
Perhaps lent this year is less about what we do outwardly, than where we allow ourselves to go within. We have to do that work so we can do what we are truly called to do.
I am still priesting in pandemic, so I extend an invitation to you as readers of this priest’s blog. From my home alter in my makeshift pandemic office, I invite you to keep a holy lent within your own self and your own space. Where are you being led, in the deep thoughts of your soul? What are the places and spaces of your life where you haven’t gone which perhaps are waiting to be transformed to the holy? Where does prayer carry you when your own steps feel uncertain?
What I learned that first Ash Wednesday, and continue to learn every day since, is that what awaits in the silence is the familiar embrace of God. Not answers. God. God has us, and is working in us and inspiring us to do what is most needed in the world step by step and day by day. We come to God most genuinely not with the belief that we have all the answers, but with open hearts that listen. We find our holy lent not in the actions of the busy, but in the quiet of divine presence. Sometimes we need to be broken open to do that. Or simply invited.
So, I invite you: may this “lent within lent” truly be a holy lent within.
Grace and Peace,
Resources for keeping a Holy Lent:
The Episcopal Church: Life Transformed: The Way of Love in Lent (2021)
Episcopal Relief and Development: Lenten Meditations 2021
Ignatian Solidarity Network Steadfast: A Call to Love for Lent 2021
Cathedral Church of St. Peter: God Brings New Beauty: A Lenten Guide for 2021