"the world still whirled"
Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air … Teach us to sit still
- T.S. Eliot Ash-Wednesday I
“Are you giving anything up for Lent?” An inescapable question of the season. When I was very small, it was the annual occasion for trying to stop sucking my thumb (ultimately successful) and biting my nails (ultimately unsuccessful), but beyond that Lent didn’t really mean a huge amount to me between pancakes and Good Friday.
The last couple of years, though, I’ve been thinking more about Lent and about giving something up, but I haven’t really. Lent, as I understand it, is about preparation for the weekend of Easter, getting ready to deal with and celebrate what the cross and the resurrection are about. I’ve come to love the reminder in the Ash Wednesday liturgy, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Lent is a time to remember that mortality, which is both brutal and kind-of liberating (I’ve always appreciated how, in the character of Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged, Douglas Adams nailed the imprisonment of endless human life). A time to remember realise why the salvation of Easter is necessary: to overcome the inevitably of death, and to bring joy to life both now and in eternity.
So, for the past couple of years I’ve not felt I’ve had the space to do that well or consistently - particularly because I’ve been travelling with work for large chunks of Lent each year, including over Ash Wednesday. It’s something of an excuse, because you should be able to ‘do Lent’ wherever you are, but I’m something of a creature of habit and in starting something that is emotionally big, I want to make sure I set up a rhythm for it so I actually sustain it across six weeks.
It’s also not an excuse, because the thing that I need to give up, really, is the busy-ness and on-the-move-ness that is a huge feature of my daily life. Travelling is both a feature of that and a bug, because with being away I tend to pile stuff and people in when I’m actually around. It’s something that distracts me from the mundanity of daily life and from learning to live with things that are or feel like lacks in my life - the things that remind me of the imperfections in me and in the world. The things I do and the people I see bring me a lot of joy, but it’s not a sustainable source of joy - not because they’re going to flake out on me, but because chasing after it to the extent that I do is exhausting. I’m often not flying so much as flapping.
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world; and the light shone in the darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word …
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice
- T.S. Eliot Ash-Wednesday V
And yet, when I moved churches a few years ago, one of the things I was looking for was local community and presence. I’ve slowly been building it - but it turns out that its really hard to do if you’re running around doing half the nights of the week. Does it say something that it has taken me until the Friday after Ash Wednesday to sit down and write about entering into Lent? Yes - it says I was feeling so tired and rough on Thursday evening, after a work trip sandwiched between two work weeks that also featured two trips out to the ballet, that I just curled up on the sofa with pizza and my housemate and watched the Men’s Snowboard Cross from PyongChang.
But you can’t really give something up while you’re doing it. This year, I actually have - half by fortune and half by design - a gap. I’m home for the start and end of Lent. In fact, I’m only away for two weeks, and one of those is a holiday, not a work trip. And so, I am embarking on Lent, properly, probably for the first time in my adult life.
I am doing two things. First, I’m giving up facebook, which was a wild, spur of the moment decision. I was thinking about things in my life that were time-filler things that I’d do rather than pray or read something reflective - and I thought that facebook might be one of those things. I keep it because there are a few old friends and family members I don’t have other contact details for, but I shilly-shally around on it a lot. So I’m going to try without it. Second, I’m joining in with a small local community to do Wild Lent. This is a taking up, rather than a giving up, because it involves doing things and seeing people, making a conscious effort to be present in a time and place, as well as having solo devotional time. But it’s also also a giving up, because it means that I have to give up rushing around elsewhere and that I have to give up my epic FOMO and fears of my friends forgetting me in order to make a conscious effort to be present in a place for a time and to find true joy in that.
Because I know that time is always time And place is always and only place And what is actual is actual for one time And only for one place I rejoice that things are as they are… - T.S. Eliot Ash-Wednesday I