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I didn’t even wear a coat for the walk to my coffee shop today. The air is honey-toned and soft. The sky is so vividly blue it flashes in, arresting as flame through the windows of the lecture hall in the morning, drawing eye and heart into its promising warmth. Springtime is a dream blooming up at the edge of winter today. Daffodils huddle under the woven black of the bare, tangled tree limbs. The earth broods, damp, close to waking. The first snowdrops star the dark carpets under the trees. And birdsong wakes me early in the morning.
The life of this freshened day, the light, the searing blue, draws my sight up and outward constantly. From work, from screen, from dreams, my consciousness is drawn away from the clamor of my student life to a great, silent glory. I am challenged to attention by this beauty. The color of it is a kind of demand upon my eyes, a request I fully answer with my wholly given attention. Who could refuse an invitation to such magnificence?
Funny then, that Shrove Tuesday, the day in the church year when believers around the world prepare to abstain in some way from earthy luxury, should fall amidst such splendor. No rain, or dampened skies, no dim, dark hours are present this afternoon to match the self-denial so associated with the opening of Lent. Tomorrow, I’ll walk up to the altar in my church, confess my mortality, and receive the mark of ashes on my forehead. I’ll remember my sin. I’ll try to fast in some way for forty whole days. Incongruous, it might seem at first, to begin this Lenten season of self-denial just as springtime wakens in all its opulence.
But as I contemplate the coming season this afternoon, perched in my coffee shop window seat, I find in the gem-like world out the panes a perfect frame as I prepare my heart to repent. I think the sunlight, the searing blue, the quickened life, the fragile flowers are a fit and lovely setting to this opening of Lent. Because, though the practice of Lent is repentance and self-denial, repentance is simply the way by which I rid myself of the lesser things that distract me from their source. A great glory, greater even than the golden day out this window, dwells in the inmost room of my heart. The morning star of the universe has taken up residence in my soul, and Lent is the season in which I remember the single, blazing fact of him there, and journey back from all that draws my sight from his glory.
Lent is, I think, the answer of the human soul to the challenge and invitation of God’s love. Lent is the call to turn my face from the clamor of a thousand distractions, to the Beauty in which I have my being.
Yes, it is a season of denial. But the denial is of the non-essential things that make it a genuine difficulty for me to live in the presence of God’s essential Love. To confess is to name what hinders God’s life in me. Habits of sin or distraction, of hatred nurtured, of insecurity kept. To fast is to free myself from the niggling loves that lessen my response to the great one. To wait, to watch, to keep a season of reflection, is to grow quiet enough to meet the Easter event with clarified, adequate, renewed sight that greets the gift of the risen Christ in fully ripened joy.
Lent is a return, to the heart of all that matters most, the single Matter of Christ apart from whom nothing matters at all.
My Lenten practices this year? To give up some food or drink (yet to be decided). To try, as much as possible, to keep company with the wider Church by keeping a partial fast on Fridays and setting aside an extra space for prayer. Simple, small things really, little tests to jolt me awake to God.
The harder thing? A space of determined, daily, kept quiet in which technology is banned and prayer or silence is practiced from early evening until morning prayers the following day. It’s easy, in the busy days I lead, to collapse into my chair at the end of the day and open the computer. To scan, to click, to fritter an hour or two away on a miniseries or a few random articles. None of it evil, of course. But it means that I go to sleep with a busy brain and waken with an unquiet mind. I reach for my iPhone as I rise, wondering what deadline I’ve missed, or news I need to know. Before I’ve even been awake ten minutes, my mind is in a whirl from which it is difficult to emerge for even a brief time of Scripture and prayer. Lectures await. Essays scream to be written. And I, already amidst a whirlwind, feel that God looms somewhere beyond the whiz of it all, but I can’t really catch his eye.
Well, I plan to let him catch my eye in this season of quiet and catch it good.
I begin with an awareness of God’s full givenness to me, a grace that allows me to repent in loving response rather than guilt. Guilt is easy for me. I’m a perfectionist. It’s funny; the more I am drawn into the rhythms of worship here in Oxford, forms and prayers that answer some of the deepest hungers of my heart for shape, rhythm, physical expression of worship, the deeper my sense of inadequacy grows. I often find myself kneeling in an aching, angsty desire to somehow give or be more than I am in response to the God I encounter in worship. I strain, I grieve with the desire to offer more of myself in response to the Love given so freely to me. Much of my prayer boils down to a simple repetition, “I wish I could offer more.” A holy desire, perhaps, but one that, in a perfectionist heart like mine, can turn my eyes to my own faults rather than the Love that heals them.
But a few nights ago, I went to Compline at Magdalen College. In deep shadow, amidst plain-chanted hymns to end the day, I looked to the altar where candles burned round a simple cross. Behind the altar loomed a larger than life picture of a sorrowing Christ, cross on his shoulder, garbed in brown, down on one knee as he bore the weight of the world’s sin and grief. Kneeling there in the lyrical, candlelit darkness, with the hymns almost whispered in a tender, gentle awe, I was aware of Christ’s givenness. Of the love poured without stint or measure. Of the grace that is with me now, regardless of what I offer.
I did not need to give, because all Love was already given to me. All that was needed was my joy in the fact.
Lent is, I think, the nourishment of joy.
It’s the honing of sight, the hushing of mind, so that Love can make his presence potently known.
If you’ve never practiced Lent before, well, join the club. Neither have I, at least to this extent. But I’m excited. Eager, like a child standing at the cusp of a journey. I’ve eaten my required stack of Shrove Tuesday pancakes (which, in England, are really crepes dressed with lemon and sugar). I’ve feasted at formal hall to end the evening. I’ve watched the day close with the knowledge that tomorrow a great quieting and centering of soul and self begins. Tomorrow I will hear these words:
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.
Christ, in whom dust is formed back into living love.
Sarah Clarkson is the author of several books including the best-selling The Life-giving Home, which she co-authored with her mother, Sally Clarkson. Sarah is currently studying literature at Oxford University where she's not only a brilliant thinker and writer, but is also the president of the C. S. Lewis Society.