Two years ago, I gave up trying out church for Lent. That was the last time I’d tried out a church that wasn’t in the very progressive Unitarian Universalist movement. Once again, I’d made it through Advent with a sense that I’d been raised Christian in a majority-Christian culture, and that for better or for worse, that background still shaped my religious understandings.
I’d just re-read Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain, in which the Hindu monk Brahmachari, visiting America for the 1933 World Congress of Religions in Chicago, suggested to Merton that he dip into the Christian tradition. The Dalai Lama, too, has been widely quoted in recent years as saying that people should look deeper into the traditions in which they grew up, rather than converting.
Their points made a certain kind of intuitive sense, especially during December and Advent, when churches put on their beautiful display of greenery, light, music, and festival. I didn’t quite make it to church that year during Advent — I didn’t quite dare — but a few weeks later, in January, I dared.
I sat in a pew during the offertory, and paged ahead to the Ash Wednesday service in the Book of Common Prayer. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I wasn’t sure that I wanted to think of sin and redemption in a Christian context, even if I’d become familiar with Judaism’s approach to sin during the Days of Awe and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
So I ran away. When I’d dip again into a UU church, I’d missed the Anglican liturgy and what I still thought of, affectionately, as “the BCP,” or Book of Common Prayer. I missed the liturgical calendar to mark time, the colors changing with the time of year, and I missed the use of a common lectionary. I valued the progressive religious and social ideas and ideals of the tradition in which I’ve spent so many years, but I found myself wanting something — here words fail — if not more true, than at least weightier, more held down by time — than the issue of the week.
When I was a child, my family didn’t observe Ash Wednesday or Lent. The most notable absence in our lives during the forty days were the words “Alleluia” on Sunday mornings. (Invariably, that first Sunday after the start of Lent, someone – maybe in my family, maybe someone else – would accidentally let an Alleluia slip, the extra syllables resounding in the quiet of the subdued season.)
My Reform Jewish husband asked me a few weeks ago, in one of the many conversations we’ve had about religion over the last few weeks, if I was going to “get ashes on my forehead and give something up for Lent?” His tone of voice lay somewhere between supportive, incredulous, and perplexed. He used same tone he might have used when finding out, years ago, that his brother was “going frum,” which is Jewish for becoming observant, but with a note of incredulity: “why would anyone do that?”
So it’s with no small trepidation that I’m engaging with Lent this year. After an off-hand comment, it became clear that I might need to refrain for 40 days from ordering cheap copies of books about religion off of Amazon. And that I should probably read the actual Bible, not just (admittedly fascinating and engrossing) modern spiritual autobiographies. And that I couldn’t quite commit to blog every day, but I could write in my journal.
But more than any of this, I’m giving up running away from church for Lent, giving up running from sentences I hardly yet dare to finish.
That last time I ran away from church, I ended up with a concussion, and then a year-and-a-half plunge into a long period of anxiety that would make its own story for another day. I don’t want that to happen again, and if it means I have to stop running, well, OK. I’ll stop running.
I’m giving up running away from church for Lent because – like that sudden sight of the ashy cross on my forehead which I saw when I passed a mirror the other day – I want to be made, as the saying goes, uncomfortable, where church exists to “comfort the uncomfortable and discomfort the comfortable.”
I want to face the discomfort of the strange rightness in the body that comes with doing more than assuming an attitude of prayer; the strange familiarity of shaping my body into an acknowledgment of something infinitely greater than any religious tradition itself.
I need (especially in these challenging Trump-era days) to be faced with the discomfort of my own privilege – as a white person, from a relatively-well-off background, heterosexual, born identifying with the gender you can see on my body (cisgender).
And beneath it all I seek the equal discomfort of the seeming impossible hope of resurrection, the radical idea that even in the midst of endings or injustice lies the promise of something infinitely better.
I’m not used to using religious words that are this specific. I’m used to painting with the broad brush of language that gets at truths shared across religious and spiritual traditions. I still believe in those wider truths, but I challenge myself to face the paradoxical freedom that can come from being more specific. I flee not a background of too much constriction or too limited understandings of the life of faith, but one that fears to offend by naming names.
Because in the end, the prayer and fasting of Lent aims towards what comes afterwards: a cross, an empty tomb, a mystery, a springtime after winter, and the absurd possibility of hope.