So far the only thing I have set in stone for Lent this year is eating a paczki (pronounced “punch-key”, really and truly) from Hinkley’s Bakery tomorrow. (Paczki, as far as I can tell, is Polish for “really cool and slightly more expensive doughnut eaten before lent begins”.)
I used to love the Lenten season. The slowing down and relinquishing. The taking on and the focusing. The somber beauty and the solitude and reflection. I truly loved it, perhaps even more than Easter, since it is just hard to do 40+ days of feasting well. It always ended up feeling too excessive and decadent and I was always happy to see Lent come around again in the church calendar.
But then we stopped going to the church that taught me about lent and made the season so meaningful. And then, over the course of seven years, I got married, had three kids and my husband got a job and then lost a job at a church. I feel like I am always trying to go back to what I had before this became normal life. Always fumbling with a backward glance for what is now distant past. But every year it hits me again when Lent rolls around, the longing to participate.
Last year Lent faded away with the reality and nausea of an unexpected pregnancy. The year before that it coincided with the knowledge that my husband was losing his job and the only thing I wanted to give up was the church in general. It took a long time, over a year, to even come close to wanting to be in church at all. Even then, I am generally in attendance on Sunday mornings with my cynicism of church life and politics as a whole in the seat next door. I look around (as best I can in the semi-dark of the room) at the nameless people around me and wonder why we’re all there. And the church we attend now (which I would vote as most likely to foster artistic expression and love the community and play Matchbox Twenty or Bruce Springsteen for the offering if you are looking for that combo) is not one that I feel much connection to, nor is it liturgical. It’s a good place to be right now, it just doesn’t feel like home. Or what used to feel like home. Or something like that.
But part of the Lenten season is being a part of the whole of the church. I would never have guessed, until I experienced it, the holistic sensory experience that lent is when it is practiced as part of the normal church year. There are sights, sounds, songs, colors, scents, feelings evoked, that are now profoundly a part of who I am because of that short 40 day period of the year. There is something about the corporate body of the church consciously slowing down and letting go, carrying and supporting one another during the fasting. I have had enough years of the “do it yourself” Lent experiences (which never end particularly well, it seems), but it’s not supposed to be a time of muscling through on your own (save that for New Year’s resolutions) or the lists of giving up and taking on, which seems to be the general feel of lent in evangelical churches where lent is often copied and pasted in as a more recent trend.
I truly don’t know how to practice Lent anymore. I miss the sense of being on a journey with other people. I miss being part of something that is so much bigger and older, deeper and richer, than anything I can come up with at the last minute. Sporadic and “pick your favorite feast/and or holy day” attendance at the local Episcopal church 25 minutes away wasn’t exactly a success last year either.
I am fumbling to put something together this year, not quite at the last minute. Reading blogs for insight and ideas, listening to a podcast that a friend was a part of, thinking of ways to practice lent at home. It is hard to get away from the feeling that it doesn’t really matter, anything we do is just a bunch of threads that aren’t a part of the whole. I am fumbling to do something meaningful for our family but meaningful to me as well. Fumbling with the feeling of loneliness in a season that cries for the depth of community. I know that it is better to practice the season in some small way than to try my hardest to intentionally ignore it and eat paczki for the next 40 days. I know that and I will act on that, hoping to be reminded somewhere in the meantime how all of this is supposed to fit together.