For someone who loves to spend Mardi Gras circling my church rec room with a glass of wine and a plate of jambalaya, the season feels silent. It’s strange to try to focus on the meaning of this time, when it’s customary to give up or let go of something that matters, in a year already studded with losses.
For people like me, who like to observe Lent, a question looms: In a year when we’ve already given up the world as we knew it, for nearly a year, how do we observe this season? What if we just don’t want to give up more?
I’ll pause here with a confession. As sheer time in the pew goes, I’m not always a particularly devout Christian. In the old days, I was on the road a lot, and during the pandemic, with its chaos, our family gave up on virtual church months ago.
But there are many gateways to the holy, and wherever I’ve been, I’ve always loved Lent’s offering of a spring fast. Over the years, I’ve filled Lenten weeks with dreamy practices (write in my journal every day) or social ones (try, each day, to call a friend). One way or another, I have practiced Lent for decades, even when I haven’t practiced much else
Even in my 20s, when I joked about attending the “Church of Brunch” and the “Church of the Holy Comforter” (i.e. bed) I still loved the ritual of being more intentional in spring, of watching the trees begin to bloom and the tulips rising out of the thaw.
How I’ve practiced has changed, however: in later years, after I’d wandered back to church, I’d use Lent to give up wheat or alcohol or sugar, enjoying abstaining, perhaps also hoping that my Lenten practice would make me (ahem) a bit leaner. As I began to raise kids, Lent sometimes snuck up, feeling like one mindfulness too many, something I’d just fail in an already busy life. “This year I’m giving up Lent for Lent,” I once told my priest.
My view of Lent evolved again a few years ago, when I was living in Northern Ireland, and visited Carrickfergus Castle
, on the north side of Belfast Lough. The castle, which dates from the 12th century, has a whole history as part of England’s efforts to colonize Ireland, and is one place where the bad King John of “Robin Hood” fame actually ended up.
It’s a great stone castle, with a narrow tower studded with thin arrow slits so that guards could send down rains of arrows to defend against marauders at sea. All that was something to behold, but what caught my attention on that cold February day was a description of liturgical life in the castle circa 1250.
A plaque described how after the big feast and hunting seasons (you’d hunt in the fall and freeze meat for the cold winter), the community came together to feast once more before entering Lent, when they’d essentially live on oats and peas for six weeks until spring came. Their late-winter feast was a stone soup affair — inviting the town to put out the best things they’d been hoarding — a last hurrah before, as a community, the times became thinner.
Looking out at the rainy landscape of Ireland, I understood the gesture: There was not much to harvest. The community fasted partly because the earth was at rest.
Suddenly, I understood Lent differently. I now saw this season and its sacrifices as rooted in both ecological and communal principles — a practice undertaken by and for community so that people could care for one another and the land in a lean time.
Thinking newly about this fast — as a practice undertaken in stewardship of one another and the earth—changed my thinking about how I wanted to observe it. Suddenly, it became far less important to think about how successful I was or was not at giving up sugar, and more important to spend time reflecting how the practices in which I root my life — work or art or faith or daily doings — act (even in mysterious ways) with and for the community around me.
Thinking this way informed my actions: Last year, for Lent, my practice was simply to drive less and to ride my bicycle as much as possible.
This year’s Lent has other, bittersweet resonance. On Mardi Gras (the Tuesday before Lent) last year we were at church in Berkeley, having our latter day feast, eating pancakes with friends. It was (unbeknownst to us) also our final communal dinner, our last evening out as a family in the former world.
I still remember us pressing in amid the small crowd gathered at church, eating and laughing together. We took turns watching as everyone’s children climbed on the church’s outdoor play structure, and my daughter wove around us, amassing a preposterous number of bead necklaces.
The virus was in the news but (we thought) not close to us yet. I was supposed to leave at dawn for a whirlwind trip to New York City. On the drive home that night, my husband, who rarely raises objections, asked me to cancel. “There’s a storm brewing, Tess, with this virus, and it would be really bad to get sick right now.”
I, who have spent years charging hard at the world, heard his request. I canceled my cab at four the next morning, and called my editor to say I’d reschedule as soon as I could.
Those were famous last words. I haven’t been in New York since. The very next day, some known cases of exposure to coronavirus appeared at our kids’ schools, and then the schools closed. That was the beginning of shutting ourselves in and down. For us, that first day of Lent marked the beginning of this lifechanging year.
This circles me back to the question: After this incredibly difficult year, in a season of so many losses and deprivations, what can we offer this second quiet Lent? How do we make choices that let us slow down and root in whatever world is here now, and prepare for whatever world is coming next?
We’ve already given up so much: I think of my parents six blocks away, missing their grandkids, our relationship muted by a year of careful skirting one another. I think of losing my great aunt in North Carolina to Covid, and the way we haven’t been able to meet as a family to bury my grandmother, a child of 1918, who passed last January.
We’ve given up libraries and bars and airplanes and airports; schools and child care and indoor spaces; we’ve foregone the comforting mammal sensation of seeing one another’s mouths. Some of us even have given up on saying hello to one another as we pass in the street, as if somehow silence will keep us safe.
It’s easy to feel like it’s all too long, and too hard, as if giving up something else this year is just beyond what anyone should attempt. It’s then that I come back to the idea that struck me in the Irish castle facing the North Sea. I remind myself that all this giving up, has — for the whole heartbreakingly challenging year — had at its root some hope of keeping one another well, of helping us all to make it through this difficult season together.
I’m reminded of the signs that were posted around our neighborhood: “Wearing your mask is an act of love.” I resolve again to slow down and weave that love back into my daily understanding: As I keep my distance, and don my mask, and register to get vaccinated, I do it for the community in which I live.
I haven’t decided quite yet what this year’s Lenten practice will be. I’m still thinking about it. I am considering volunteering each week in a local community garden. I miss hugging and drinking wine with friends in a big old rickety church building. I miss joking with the coffee guy at the train station and laughing with friends in crowded bars.
I’m so hungry for the world. There is, this year, an endgame in sight, however far off. Maybe not by Easter, maybe not by summer, but we will find our ways back to one another. For now, I try to center on love. I keep my eye on the tulips: I watch them moving, day by day, toward bloom.