In the March 12 New York Times Magazine, Eva O’Leary published a “Letter of Recommendation” for Lent. Without reviewing the piece (you can read it with ease online), I want to give my take-aways here.
Ms. O’Leary writes about discovering Lent over a number of years, as she found her way into an Episcopal congregation during the time she broke up, got back together again, broke up, got back together again, eventually married, and then in the end divorced her love. The travail of her relationship was an interesting backdrop to moving from skepticism about Lent (it’s odd, archaic, and only about giving up chocolate for no real reason) to embracing what Lent could mean in her life. Or maybe it was the other way around, that discovering Lent gave an interesting backdrop to her ups and downs of love, sadness, guilt, and forgiveness. Either way, she found her way around some profound thoughts about this time of year. Here’s what I got:
We live into Lent, slowly. Not many of us really do anything more in the 40 days (excluding Sundays) before Easter that we call Lent than think about it on Sundays and maybe do a midweek service once or twice. Some of us do more: fasting, taking up acts of charity, doing daily devotionals and weekly evening worship, reflecting on the human condition and our need for God. But as we move along the continuum, Lent has gifts to give. Those gifts can slowly remind us that our whole lives are long, rocky, twisty journeys toward the Love that made us.
We let Lent live into us, even more slowly. No one need tell us we’re imperfect, or that life can be both hard and great. We pretty much know this. The questions for us are how to better understand, and even embrace, our imperfection as a place of grace, and maybe how to let new thoughts slowly redefine what we think is hard and what we want to be great—to change our sense of ourselves, what we want, and what our lives are for. Those questions get answered, bit by bit, and maybe over years, in what Lent invites us to: a long, repeated rhythm of being honest with ourselves giving the broken parts to God—with openness and thanks. The insights of Lent are meant to move into our regrets as well as our happiness, to free us.
And when Lent’s power becomes real, it becomes what’s true. “We are from dust, and to dust we shall return,” we’re told on the first day of Lent, as ashes are smudged on our forehead. And yet we say that with gratitude, told that admitting that is the first step toward being released from the burden of thinking we’re supposed to hold everything on our shoulders. We withhold words of joy, or things of pleasure, not because they’re bad, but to remind ourselves that they’re fleeting—so when they come (again) we can savor them all the more even as we learn to keep them in their rightful place. We see life in all its breadth—the good and the bad—and so we learn to see others better too, to appreciate others in all their complexities too. And we wait for the Easter bang, when trumpets and singing and flowers return—knowing that the gift of possibility and joy is, finally, the truest and surest thing of all. Suffering is inevitable, but not necessary. Love is all.
So accept my own letter of recommendation for Lent—all the way to Easter.