Today, in the Christian liturgical calendar, is Ash Wednesday. It signifies the beginning of Lent - the season I dreaded every year as a kid. Growing up in the Catholic faith, we had to give up something for the duration of Lent: TV, sweets, snacks between meals, soda pop. Basically anything that gives a kid joy was on the Lenten chopping block. We also weren't allowed to eat meat on Fridays, hence the Lenten Fish Fries you see advertised on church billboards.
These practices were taught -- as I understood it -- so we might better appreciate the suffering that Jesus, his disciples and many of the saints endured for their faith. But as a child, I was often sneaky and disobedient when it came to fulfilling the promise I'd made to give something up, which led to a sense of shame - not just that my parents or my priest would be disappointed in me, but that God knew and was ashamed of me. I don't share this story to criticize Catholicism. Because although I'm no longer a practicing Catholic, I still value the foundation of my childhood faith. Most of all, I find solace in the seasons and rituals of transition that are marked by the liturgical calendar.
This year, I'm choosing to imagine a new narrative for Lent, one that doesn't require me to give up anything -- we've all done plenty of that lately. Instead, I'm choosing to set aside this season to embrace and honor the grief and loneliness that I'm still experiencing personally and that I know many of us have been experiencing this past year. It's almost unbearable to contemplate the extent of that loss: the millions who have died around the world; the disruption to our family and social lives; the loss of routines and rites of passage for our kids; the cancellation of activities and experiences that normally bring joy and purpose to our lives: family and community gatherings, sports, concerts and holiday celebrations; the erosion of trust in leadership and community that comes with social and political unrest. These are all losses we're reckoning with. And yet, we can't be together to grieve these events together, which is so necessary for healing.
As one of my teachers, Linda Thai, recently said "Covid brought death to our doorstep, but the conditions to meet our grief have been absent." Our society has taught us well how to numb out and avoid sadness and discomfort, to get over it, stuff it down, tune it out, and rage against it -- and those are all valid, sensible ways to protect ourselves from the pain of extreme loss. In the case of those who live in marginalized, abusive or economically insecure circumstances, it's often necessary for survival. But, my friends, we're going to need to find a way to meet each other in our grief if we are ever to heal.
This is what I have come to understand the season of Lent is really about: sharing our suffering and our humanness in community.
Lent offers us a time to mourn together -- not to dwell on or belabor our grief, not to rationalize it or blame others for it, but to set aside intentional time to honor it. We can have hope for spring and better times ahead, and we also need to do the important work of simply being present with our own pain and uncertainty with reverence and compassion, without judgment, shame or a goal to "move on." And no matter how difficult or imperfect it is right now, we need to figure out how to allow others we trust to bear witness to our grief so that we can hold each other in our suffering. I made the choice to do that with my mother-in-law recently, after hiding much of our family's distress from her for months. And it was a beautiful thing. She witnessed my anguish and fears in ways that no one else could, and I realized how much I had underestimated her ability to carry that burden with us. Now, even though it's still painful and uncertain, it hurts a little less because she knows. And it's a little less scary -- even though our circumstances haven't changed. That, my friends, is the healing that can come with being vulnerable, with feeling deeply and revealing our authentic selves to each other.
My daily intentions this Lent are to light a candle and engage in some writing, art or movement that provides an outlet for my grief. I invite you to join me in your own practice, in whatever way feels right to you. Maybe it's a daily walk, noticing your nature in nature. Maybe it's a journal practice that allows you to pour your thoughts out, unfiltered onto the page. Maybe it's sitting quietly for ten minutes and focusing your attention on your breath or gazing out the window or at an object that helps you feel more grounded. Maybe it's investing in a hobby or endeavor that brings you closer to yourself. Whatever it is, I invite you to offer yourself some compassion and allow whatever arises in that time to make its way to the surface, even if it's uncomfortable. And I hope you find the courage to share whatever you discover with someone you trust. Because as my dear friend, Lisa, reminds me regularly, "We are not islands. We are not meant to walk this journey alone."