A friend — reacting to the apparent thinness of Robert Mueller’s case against the president — told me: “This year, I’m giving up hope for Lent.” I, in turn, am giving up commenting on documents I have never seen. And so it might be more productive to focus on Lent itself — the yearly festival of self-examination, denial and preparation for Easter Sunday (technically for Holy Thursday, when fasting traditionally ends).
Of all the sacred holidays and seasons, surely Lent is the least congenial to the modern spirit. We move forward in life through accumulation. In Lent, we move forward by renunciation. Those who would call this “un-American” are correct, given that our economy is based on consumption and credit. There are no “Merry Lent” signs at the department store, no designer collection of hair shirts.
And yet we find creative methods to adapt Lent to our way of life. Some of us give up sweets, with the dual purpose of self-sacrifice and dieting. It is fully consistent with American ideals to kill two birds with one ancient spiritual practice — examining our inner selves while losing those 10 pesky pounds. The same goes for giving up alcohol, by which we avoid hangovers, embarrassment and expense while also appeasing the Creator.
This is not, perhaps, what the fourth-century church fathers (and mothers) had in mind. A Lenten discipline is not the holy equivalent of a New Year’s resolution. It is the annual invitation to focus on spiritual matters — on penance and prayer — by giving up certain luxuries or accepting certain charitable duties. The focus is supposed to be on the inner life. The 17th-century poet Robert Herrick described Lent as a time “to fast from strife/ From old debate,/ And hate;/ To circumcise thy life./ To show a heart grief-rent.”
Not all Christian traditions have Lent on their calendar. An evangelical friend once announced to me that he was giving up “extra-biblical human traditions” for Lent. But Lenten practice has deep roots among Anglicans, Methodists, Lutherans and Catholics. The last among those denominations forbids eating meat on Fridays during Lent, which gave rise, according to one ancient text, to the Filet-o-Fish sandwich at McDonalds. This has all the hallmarks of an American religious adaptation: fasting with fast food.
Recently, I had sort of an enforced Lent during a week in the hospital. It involved mediocre food, no electronics of any kind, and a small room with only a bed, a chair and a desk. (The cell, I was told, was once the “cold room,” where recalcitrant patients were housed to literally chill out.) What did I miss? Lots of things. What could I do without? Pretty much everything.
That type of denial often reveals that the richness of life is found elsewhere — in moments of spiritual reflection that are molasses-thick with meaning. In the experience of gratitude — not for this thing or that thing — but for God’s radiating presence in all things. This must have been the type of experience sought by Jesus during 40 days of wandering and fasting in the desert: a sense of God’s immanence, which only seems revealed in the absence of distraction.
This search for God or enlightenment in the mindful moment is found in most forms of spirituality — and in most forms of recovery from addiction or depression. “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow,” said Jesus, “for tomorrow will worry about itself.” Here he not only forbids worry; he urges the stillness of complete trust. This is not found by ruminating about the past, or by worrying about the future. It is discovered by fully occupying the present moment.
It is like learning to float in the ocean. Let go and the universe will hold you. Struggle and you drown.
This may sound like New Age mystification. It actually embodies a brutal wisdom. If we live in the moment — say, with the brush of spring air on your cheek, and strong coffee in your hand, and a saintly dog sleeping at your feet — most of us are fairly happy. If we live in the future, all of us are eventually dead.
This raises one of the great spiritual questions: How do we live well, given the certainty of future suffering? It is by living now, in a present that is also a gift, which is also a wonder.