Growing up in the Baptist tradition, the churches my family attended did not formally observe Lent. This 40-day season leading up to Easter was a rite reserved for my Catholic and Methodist friends, and I felt properly jealous that they were invited to participate in what seemed to be a very “grown-up” Christian ritual and I was not. It is rather “grown-up,” isn’t it? The dusty images of Lent seem foreign in a normally cheerful children’s Sunday school room. And I never felt like adults took me seriously when, as a preteen, I would announce whatever it was I planned to give up for Lent. Looking back, I can’t tell whether my impulse to participate in Lent was achievement based (as in, “let me show you what I’m capable of”) or based in a desire to participate in an old, possibly wondrous ritual. (It was probably a combination of both.)
This year, Lent has arrived on the heels of one of the most significant landmarks of my professional life: completing and passing my doctoral exams. On four separate days in late January and early February, I did my best to prove that I was capable (and worthy) of calling myself a scholar, with only my brain and a little computer screen as witnesses. My exams took place in a high-ceilinged room, where the walls are lined with bookshelves protected by locked glass cases. There’s so much irony in that space itself, as if it’s attempting to allegorize your challenge: tell us all you know about good books, while all the books themselves are locked away—within your sight, but out of reach. I poured out all I had into the white-screened, digital offering plate. And I passed. It’s finished.
But now Ash Wednesday is here, and it’s taken me by absolute surprise. I’ve just finished a season of self-denial (studying in every spare moment, neglecting caring for myself, and pushing aside relationships in pursuit of “just getting through exams”), and now I am immediately entering into another season of conscious preparation. Richard Rohr describes the Lenten season as a liturgical marker of the “wondrous loop,” or the cycle we experience between feeling that our lives are worthwhile and feeling that they are meaningless:
There are two moments that matter. One is when you know that your one and only life is absolutely valuable and alive. The other is when you know your life, as presently lived, is entirely pointless and empty. You need both of them to keep you going in the right direction. Lent is about both. The first such moment gives you energy and joy by connecting you with your ultimate Source and Ground. The second gives you limits and boundaries, and a proper humility, so you keep seeking the Source and Ground and not just your small self. (Rohr, Wondrous Encounters: Scripture for Lent)
In Book II of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, the narrator describes the challenge of chronicling all the history of Britain’s monarchs with only his “frail pen” in this way: “a labor huge, exceeding far my might.” The poet does, in fact, accomplish his “labor huge,” though. This is how I’ve felt about my doctoral exams, that they are a huge labor far beyond my actual capabilities; and yet I’ve done it and done it successfully. I felt so powerful and intelligent after my exams were over. The hard thing was conquered, and the “winning” gave me confidence similar to what Rohr describes above: “your one and only life is absolutely valuable and alive.” Now, I know that passing PhD exams does not give my life value, but I won’t deny the fact that it made me feel triumphant and worthy of calling myself a scholar. I felt affirmed in my vocation as an academic; after all, I had passed the test.
As the triumph subsides, however, and I confront the next daunting task of writing a meaningful dissertation, I am humbled. I’m feeling that “proper humility” that Rohr describes as the low point of the wondrous loop. Even though this one “labor huge” is finished, there has to be a moment of reorientation that makes me aware of my limits. As Rohr writes, this humbling quality of the wondrous loop directs your attention back to “the Source and Ground and not just your small self.” My small self may have passed exams, but fixating on the human power of my small self won’t sustain me.
I’m mature enough to understand that Lent is not only about giving up something, but I am simple enough to realize that this is not at all a bad starting place. This may sound a little abstract, but, this Lent, I want to give up my refrain of self-congratulation. I want to silence the voice in my head that keeps telling me, over and over again, how my triumph in passing exams is an excuse to be irresponsible with my time and my resources. I am certainly not against celebrating, but when the “winning” becomes an excuse for over-spending, slacking on my responsibilities at home, neglecting relationships, and not caring for my students, then something is truly amiss. Lent may be the perfect time to level things out.