I am not fond of Lent. There is for me a burdensome quality to a season that begins with ashes and ends with a tomb. It has for me the heavy feel of dark duty. So, I tend to approach Lent with an attitude that I need to do something, or give something up. By the end of Lent I have often been exhausted and aching for some decadent "death by chocolate" dessert.
But I need Lent. I need the disciplines that we associate with the season. I need the insights those disciplines typically reveal. I need the transforming power of the Spirit that the insight calls forth.
Twentieth century mystic Evelyn Underhill reminds us that "Lent is a good moment for a spiritual stocktaking; a pause, a retreat from life's busy surface to its solemn depths." Pointedly, she observes that "There are few who cannot benefit by a bit by bit examination" of the resources that each baptized Christian has, a discernment of those things which "must be treasured and kept in good order," as opposed to the "spiritual odds and ends" "which we have accumulated for ourselves."
Important as the discipline of stocktaking may be, taking the time to do it is often a luxury that it seems few can afford. The schedules of families with young children or teenagers are daunting. The demands of employment and careers are unceasing. Adding another thing to do in Lent seems unrealistic at best. But, true as that is, the cost of not doing it may be greater.
I am a recovering workaholic. I learned it from my father; and it was honed to a fine art by guilt-driven expectations of a 24/7 ministry. It took me a very long time to figure out that I was chronically exhausted and depressed. I've spent a small fortune on therapy trying to deal with it. It all came to a head almost twenty years ago when I ended up in a hospital emergency room with chest pains. After a battery of tests, my doctor sat me down for a "heart to heart" talk. "Well, Dick," he began, "as we thought, your heart is OK. It's probably just stress." Then he smiled and said, "But, of course, you know that stress can kill you. Let's talk about your life." It was the beginning of a long, difficult process of recovering from an addiction to doing things.
Percy Ainsworth has written: "I am afraid that too often we leave the deeps of life untouched, not because we remember they are sacred, but because we forget they are there." From time to time we are called to the deep places of our lives where the very image of God abides. It is a holy place that, in our busy-ness, we don't often visit. Perhaps the reason why we are reluctant to go there is because of the risk involved. Instinctively we know that when we do finally stop, we will come face to face with God, who is holding up a mirror so that we can see ourselves more clearly. That is where the stocktaking begins, as we move in the Presence of God from our life's busy surface into its solemn depths.
At its best, Lent offers an invitation to the practice of stillness where, amid the bustle of our days, we can pause to let God take the measure of our lives. The great benefits of this encounter, says Evelyn Underhill, is "a return to first principles," where we find "all the essentials for feeding that inner life of which we talk so much and understand so very little."
Don't just do something, sit there!