A couple of years ago, I gave up hot beverages for Lent. I’m a pretty hard-core tea-drinker—nothing frou-frou—just as long as it’s hot, strong, and black. But I knew that if I allowed for coffee, hot chocolate, or cider that I would end up finding a substitute and missing the point. Some may find this too stringent while others too trivial. That’s not really the point, either. Many years I haven’t given Lent a second thought, and then others it seemed somehow, necessary. Not for salvation, but for some kind of growth, usually because feel I don’t pray regularly enough.
After about two days, I had one of the worst headaches—the kind that makes your skull feel as if it’s going to crack and any light feels like a knife in each pupil. It hadn’t occurred to me that I might need to taper off, that my body might actually go through a bit of a detox. (For two cups a day—seriously? Yep.)
A few other things were about to go through a detox as well. Over the years I’d become a little wary of my motives for fasting in any form because I knew it could easily turn into an attempted conjuring trick. You want God to know you’re serious? That you really desire him? This is the most desperate way to show Him, the way to become more aware of His presence.
About four days in, I became more aware all right—of my whiny, self-indulgent nature. Throughout the day, I noticed multiple moments in which I would normally brew (or more times than not, reheat) a cup of tea. My abstinence highlighted more than a routine. I found myself reaching during moments of stress, weariness, and even anxiety, and I would come to a full stop because of the forty-day commitment. Of course, the purpose of an exercise like fasting is not to go without so much as to remember, to have one’s focus redirected to the Lord, not just to pray, but to create an attitude of prayer, of the dependence we forget. Far from conjuring the Holy Spirit, it’s to capture our own attention. I had often marveled at how an older man I worked with naturally responded to even small moments of stress with an attitude of prayer. (And I do mean naturally, not creepily). Here was an opportunity to perhaps receive some extra reminders.
Frankly, I wanted none of it, and I remember standing in front of the microwave of the teacher workroom and telling God just that. I wanted to warm my cup of Yorkshire Gold and get back to grading papers. I’d let him know when I needed him to keep me from curling up in the fetal position over a snarky parent email. I could connect with God, I could remember Him, I could pray, all by myself, tea or no tea, and I didn’t need anything saying I couldn’t have it. This was not what I bargained for. I felt snappy, grumpy, whiny, even a little rebellious—tell me I can’t have something as insignificant…
“You’re addicted, aren’t you?” An eighth grade girl with freckles grinned when I shared this bit about myself a few years later.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been so forthcoming.
How often do we reach for small things to comfort us? I’m not talking about appreciation—that implies that you are enjoying the thing rightly. I’m talking about reaching, demanding more from something than what was originally intended. Our culture talks a great deal about self-care, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing in its proper context, but sometimes I wonder if we aren’t about to self-care ourselves to death. We act as if we are so fragile.
And we are. A few weeks ago, I followed a short line of people from infancy to old age, and stood in front of my pastor. I remember staring at his black shoes and feeling like I was in a story by Flannery O’Connor as he rubbed the mixture of oil and dust in the shape of a cross on my forehead with his thumb, reciting in his Yankee accent, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Right in the middle of this Lenten season, we find ourselves confronted with requests for self-denial in the midst of a lot of unanswered questions and when our instincts for self-preservation tell us to buy up all of the milk, bread, and eggs. Much of what many of us have been asked to sacrifice might not be considered much of a sacrifice by others, and yet, what is being sacrificed is revealing a great deal regarding what we, generally speaking, depend upon—socially, economically, maybe even, for good or ill, psychologically and spiritually.
How does it feel to tell ourselves no, even in regards to the non-essentials? Do we feel threatened? Cheated? Do we feel the need to maybe, announce it a little? To pat ourselves on the back because we aren’t doing this for ourselves but for those who are more vulnerable? Or at least reward ourselves through what seems a smaller indulgence? A way to cope?
During this Lenten season, I know I’ve been tempted to “give myself a break.” A mini “Fat Tuesday” of sorts. And a break from what, really?
From being reminded of my own mortality and that of those around me?
From unconsciously excusing myself for wanting to indulge in comfort food because I’m not as bad as the person I saw in the parking-lot with the entire back seat of a car filled with toilet paper? Or the people who hoarded $18,000 worth of hand sanitizer?
Perhaps I’ve actually been tempted to shut myself up in my room with my own hedonism?
But as I look at the jar of ashes in the kitchen window sill, I’m reminded of last year’s jar that I placed next to my computer at work. Typically, people throw out their ashes at Easter and replace them with a flower, but I kept mine, partly because Ash Wednesday was something new for me, and I didn’t know the church gave out a new jar every year, and I wanted to remember. Right now it sits next to a picture of a forty-seven-year-old husband and father named Kevin, who passed away back in October after three decades of battling MS. I only met Kevin a handful of times, but he managed to say with his eyes things that I still cannot express with words spoken or written. I keep his picture for an eternal perspective, because I often forget what it means to have limited time on earth and an immortal soul. For some reason, when I see him, I think of Jesus, and everything else sinks back into perspective. Perhaps that’s part of what C.S. Lewis meant when he said, “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is perhaps the holiest object presented to your senses.”
Could all this be one more reminder that we are but dust? That our neighbors will one day be immortal horrors or everlasting splendors?
Could it be a call to give up, not just our luxuries, but our dependence upon all that we have deemed so secure and fulfilling—whether health or jobs or the stock market or a political party or those we hold dearest?
Last year my church spent the Lenten season focused on giving up our sin—because that’s all we really have to offer. Could we give up our sin? Our uncertainty? Our self-reliance and co-dependence? Our rights? Our brokenness?
This year my pastor pointed out that on Ash Wednesday, we see the consequences and healing of our sin so closely intertwined. We need that reminder, not just one night a year, and not just in the middle of a pandemic.
 In retrospect, I’m not sure He particularly likes that way of thinking. To use Eustace’s words, It would look as if we thought we could make Him do things. (Lewis, C.S. The Silver Chair)
 I actually do have a habit of praying throughout the day, as I go, and I’ve often compared myself to Reb Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof. Those familiar with the musical may guess the strength and weaknesses of such an approach.
 It’s a bit strange to look someone in the eye when they’re imposing ashes on your forehead. I tried the year before. Maybe it was the gravity of the situation, but I think it might have just been augmented by the fact that I’m only five feet and he’s six-foot-five…Death makes me feel small enough.
 Lewis, C.S. The Weight of Glory and Other Essays, (Harper San Francisco, 1980), 46.
*Image taken from https://www.madisonsquarechurch.org/ash-wednesday-cross/