As I write this reflection it’s the third week in Epiphany and I’ve been thinking about Lent for a couple of weeks now. I am thinking about Shrove Tuesday; the pancake supper, the palms we will burn, and the ashes we will prepare for the next day’s liturgy. I am thinking about the fragility of life, mortality, and the ashes that will mark our foreheads on Ash Wednesday. I am thinking about the Church’s invitation “to the observance of a holy Lent by forty days of self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” The old voices in my head are asking, “What are you giving up for Lent this year?”
I’ve been thinking a lot about Lent and the truth is I don’t want to do Lent this year. Now maybe that’s something a priest isn’t supposed to say but I did and I mean what I said. I don’t want to do Lent this year. I don’t want to just get through Lent. I want Lent to get through to me. I want Lent to do me. So I’ve taken refuge in the first few lines of Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese”:
“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.”
Those lines encourage me not to approach Lent as just another program for self-improvement. They save me from embarking on a journey of self-punishment in hope of a divine reward. They caution me not to devote forty days of my life to giving up only to take back on Easter morning what I gave up. They confirm that I do not want to do Lent this year.
Instead, I want to discover “the soft animal of my body,” that tender, instinctual, and deeply human part of me that loves, the part that in the gospel for Ash Wednesday (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21) Jesus calls the heart. I want to learn what it is I give myself to. What do I really love? What are my treasures? Where is my heart?
In the gospel for Ash Wednesday Jesus reminds us that one’s heart and treasure cannot be separated. “For where your treasure is, there you heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). The heart follows one’s treasures. When I name my treasures then I will find my heart, that “soft animal” that loves.
That’s when I have to face up to myself and, for better or worse, acknowledge the treasures I have given myself to and the direction in which they have taken my life. It would be easier to be good, and less painful to “walk on [my] knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.” But I do not want to do Lent this year.
Some treasures are of lasting and eternal value, others are not. Some are worth holding on to. Others I need to let go of regardless of how much I think I love or need them. They are fool’s gold.
Learning to love and learning what to love, learning what to hold on to and what to let go of, that’s the real work of Lent. That’s when Lent gets through to me. That’s when I stop doing Lent and Lent begins doing me.