If you need a quick intro to Lent, the season of preparation for Easter, click here.
On Ash Wednesday of last year, I closed a quick email to a friend with a not entirely enthusiastic comment about the beginning of Lent: “At the moment, I need to go be reminded of mortality. Or so the church tells me, so off I go….” Within a few weeks, much of the country and world would be on pandemic-induced lockdown, with rising death tolls daily reinforcing awareness of our mortality. For me, the lockdown also entailed severe isolation — so much so that I jokingly referred to the season as my “anchorite Lent,” alluding to Julian of Norwich (who, incidentally, inspired some of the profound Pandemic Prayers in this book by my colleague Beth Felker Jones). Unlike a real anchorite, I did not undertake any impressive Lenten disciplines. Still, the very weight of our situation ensured that I, like many, reckoned in a new way with our shared vulnerability to death. The lockdown also served as a sort of spiritual “timeout,” during which I confronted a caricatured version of the ways I had structured my life and wrestled with hard questions about the viability of my choices. Easter eventually came (albeit on Zoom). But as the pandemic continued, the whole year started to feel like a Lenten journey. Global, national, local, familial, and individual circumstances compelled many of us to reckon with sin, death, and the devil more honestly than we might have preferred.
For me, the anchorite Lent that became a Lenten year has led to frank conversations with God, uncharacteristically assertive naming of my needs to others, and several major decisions geared toward addressing the limitations, sins, and disorder that the pandemic made evident in my life. Concretely, this has meant actions such as changing my living space to allow for the possibility of a housemate, as well as reorganizing my schedule to prioritize Covid-careful community with a small bubble of people. As we approach another Ash Wednesday after a year marked by so many more deaths than usual — and by so many other disruptions related to the pandemic, intertwined with ongoing injustices arising from racism, white supremacist nationalism, and more — how might the experiences of the past penitential year inform our observance of Lent? Many are not (at the moment) as severely inhibited by the pandemic as we were by the middle of Lent last year, and several vaccines offer some hope of increasing normalcy in the year to come. Even as I give thanks for these developments, I hope to mark this year’s journey toward Easter joy with a humbler and braver commitment to truthfulness about sin and death, so that the devastation caused by Covid-19 might continue to deepen my awareness of the good news that Christ — who defeated sin and death — is risen indeed. What Lenten practices might help you to preserve the greater honesty about ourselves and our world that was forced on us by Covid-19, with its relentless demonstration of human mortality and its highlighting of the disorder in our personal and communal lives?
from mentor and systematic theologian
Thank you so much for your honest question! Months into the pandemic, I think all of us immediately identify with the sensory deprivation and sense of loss you've expressed.
As I think about your question, the practice of fasting comes to mind. (For me, fasting is not necessarily or even primarily a penitential practice or particularly associated with Lent, although one may approach it in these ways. I find Dallas Willard's account of fasting as one of the disciplines of abstinence — alongside those of engagement — more compelling, and one that comports with Jesus' own teaching and practice of both kinds of disciplines. Practicing the classic spiritual disciplines (God-appointed, biblically- and historically-attested measures to receive the spiritual resources we need) is a matter of wisdom — one that Jesus himself practiced. Jesus's instructions in Matthew 6:16-18 matter-of-factly assume that — like giving to the poor and prayer — fasting was a regular practice for his disciples.
I also confess that fasting is not something I'm naturally drawn to (I really enjoy food!), but it helps when I reframe that "going-without" as simplifying my life a bit, freeing-up the time, attention, and energy I normally spend on preparing, eating, and cleaning-up after a meal to make some extra "space for God." It's about redirecting my focus, remembering that God is merciful and good, and that "he rewards those who earnestly seek him" (Hebrews 11:6). Of course I approach God in whatever condition I find myself. Whatever is going on, I can actually take the time needed for my soul to register its deeper needs and desires for more of God, and then spend the time as I am led.
Willard writes, "Fasting confirms our utter dependence upon God by finding him a source of sustenance beyond food. Through it, we learn to experience that God's word to us is a life substance, that it is not food ('bread' alone) that gives life, but also the words that proceed from the mouth of God (Matt. 4:4). We learn that we too have meat to eat that the world does not know about (John 4:32, 34). Fasting unto our Lord is therefore feasting — feasting on him and on doing his will," including doing so at special times or as a part of our direct service to him (The Spirit of the Disciplines, 166, 168).
Are you familiar with "the prayer of rest" (often called "centering prayer," and also traditionally seen as the culmination of lectio divina, hearing God's personalized word addressing us in and with Scripture)? The Psalmists describe it in various ways: as "find[ing] rest for my soul in God alone" (Psalm 62), and as coming to rest quietly in God's presence, enveloped in his love, savoring simply being together, "as a weaned child with its mother" (Psalm 131). This simple, nurturing practice (or a similar one) may be especially fitting at this time.
I don't mean to specifically prescribe fasting for you; this is just an example of a general pattern. Is there something you can lay down for a time, to follow through on your desire for more meaningful connection with God?
For introductions to the practices I've mentioned here, I recommend Adele Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, rev. ed. (contemplation as the larger framework: pp. 154-59; contemplative prayer, pp. 239-41; lectio divina: pp. 187-91, alongside meditation: pp. 191-94; centering prayer: pp. 236-38; and fasting: pp. 245-49). For a six-part Bible study series incorporating exercises on simplicity and fasting, see Jan Johnson, Spiritual Disciplines Companion, pp. 225-58. For practical guidance on fasting, Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, pp. 47-61.