The season of Lent is upon us and with it the rituals of repentance: fasting, abstinence, and acts of self-denial; ashes, palms, and Stations of the Cross; mournful music, daily devotionals, and confession of sins. The First Council of Nicea (325 A.D.) established the 40 days of Lent beginning on Ash Wednesday as a period of fasting and sacrifice in preparation for Easter. While specific rites and rituals may differ among Christian denominations, some form of Lenten practice is traditionally observed not only by the Roman Catholic Church, but also by Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian and some Baptist churches. Any particular “sackcloth and ashes” practices of Lent have been created by churchmen and have no specific foundations in Scripture, though a biblical basis for fasting and the denial of worldly temptations is usually attributed to the gospel accounts of the 40 days and 40 nights Jesus spent in the desert in spiritual preparation for his public life and ultimate sacrifice.
The desert as a landscape of a parched spirit is a recurring metaphor in both the Old and the New Testaments. Paradoxically, it becomes both a place of threatening isolation and death, and a place of spiritual encounter and renewal: Abraham casts Hagar and her son, Ishmael, out into the desert; Moses spends 40 years in the desert before returning to Egypt to free his people, and then spends another 40 wandering there with the Israelites; the people of Judah are exiled from Babylon, only to be called back by God and ordered to return through the wasteland from which they’d come; Mary and Joseph take the baby Jesus and flee into the desert to avoid Herod’s wrath; Jesus grows up in the small town of Nazareth, literally in the middle of the desert; John the Baptist preaches and converts in the desert, and baptizes Jesus there. The references and subtleties that underlie all these narratives are made stronger and more meaningful by virtue of their settings; the stories and images taken together are perfectly suited to the mood and the meaning of Lent.
The writer in me wants to believe that this well-developed biblical metaphor was no accident for the early authors of Scripture, even though they wrote at different times over many different years. Yes, it’s true that almost all of the Holy Land where these stories take place is, in fact, a desert wilderness. If you’ve been to the Sahara, the Sinai, the Wadi Rum or the Arabian Desert and seen the vast expanses of nothingness there today, then you have not only seen, but no doubt experienced for yourself the sudden, very real loneliness and desolation such a landscape invites. Even a “garden” in a populated city, such as the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem (photo above), is a dry and arid place, a perfect setting for Christ’s final agony of spirit.
Not surprisingly, as both a traditional Catholic and a writer, I don’t believe in the “literal translation” of the Bible, but I do believe in the enduring truth of its overall message: “A voice cries out in the desert, prepare the way of the Lord!” (Isaiah 40:1-3) Life is a journey and we are all wandering, sometimes aimlessly, toward something, somewhere, someone. Lent is a time of transition, a time to find the way forward out of whatever spiritual desert we may have wandered into toward a renewed promise of hope. We want to believe that our eternal spring is coming, and we want to be ready when it does, but faith falters and sometimes we have only the habits and rituals of that faith to keep us tethered. We are, after all, only human:
Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn
Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dream-crossed twilight between birth and dying
Ash Wednesday, T.S. Eliot
I was introduced to the work of T.S. Eliot in 10th grade in Catholic school by a gifted, demanding English teacher named Sr. Gabriel. To be sure, it was quite an undertaking with a bunch of 14 year olds, but as I later discovered myself while teaching high school, precocious teenagers who think they know everything love nothing better than the chance to prove it by ferreting out obscure references and abstract symbols. At any rate, I have been reading Eliot’s work, studying it and teaching it, and loving it, ever since. Many of his best-known poems, including The Waste Land and The Hollow Men, have to do with the emptiness of existence without hope, without faith. For me, they make perfect Lenten “literary” meditations.
Ash Wednesday, often called his “conversion poem” because it was written after Eliot’s conversion to Anglicanism in 1927, is about the difficulty of religious belief in an age of uncertainty — uniquely relevant today. But, is the fervent hope for salvation and life everlasting the same as a fervent belief in it? I don’t think so. The poetic persona through the five movements of the poem moves from utter despair through confusion and exhaustion to some final resolution of acceptance. Whether or not that acceptance is a true “conversion” or simply a form of surrender seems debatable. The opening lines of the last stanza of the final movement, to my mind some of the most beautiful and most sensible words to live by, may hint at a new beginning, but not necessarily one grounded in the fullness of faith:
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
The personal struggle for spiritual wholeness is not easy to describe or comprehend. Nor is the the work of T.S. Eliot. One of his often-quoted maxims might appropriately be applied to both: “…genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” Amen.