When I was a young priest and living in Western Michigan, I was no stranger to the monks at St. Gregory’s Abbey, near the town of Three Rivers and about an hour away from where I lived. The community became a frequent source of refuge and retreat for me. I happened to have been there during Lent one year, and one of the monks remarked that not a lot changes during Lent at the monastery in terms of “giving up.” The monks, he said, already live a life of restraint and modesty all the time, and there isn’t much to cut back for the sake of one season. The observance of a good and holy Lent has to take on other aspects in that setting.
The Diocese of Missouri had a long-standing partnership with a diocese in South Sudan, where the people’s livelihood depends almost entirely on subsistence farming. The clergy themselves farm in order to make a living, and that living is always contingent on timely rains and good growing conditions. The cash economy is negligible; people grow their food, or they starve. I remember one old and venerable priest who was cutting back on the amount of food that she ate, and for a long time, so her granddaughter would have adequate nourishment to nurse her baby. So close to the margins was life in South Sudan’s region of Equatoria. Lent necessarily looks different in such a setting.
Most of us are neither monastics (though I do see you, dear sisters of the Community of the Transfiguration) nor subsistence farmers in a marginal land. But the whole Church has something to learn from witnesses like these.
This spring marks the third Lent during the time of the pandemic. Most people whom I know fluctuate from weariness, to fear, to being on edge. Perhaps there are practices of a good and holy Lent which might help us find some relief from these very things which ail us. Perhaps the usual practices of privation are out of place this year, given the situation.
The pandemic wears on most of us. I know that such is the case for clergy. I know because as bishop, I talk with clergy a lot. But I know well that clergy are not the only ones. Parents, children, teachers, students, first responders, people in health care, retail workers, cooks and wait staff, drivers, workers in construction, the unemployed—these come to mind easily to begin a list of all the people affected. Almost everyone feels the weight that the pandemic has imposed.
Strenuous giving-up for Lent strikes me as out of place in a time like ours. A good Lent this year may require greater attention to other graces which God sets all around us, to claim them and to practice them. The simple grace of rest, for example, may be just the Lenten balm for us all. A respite from all the urgencies demanding attention may prove elusive, nigh impossible for many of us. So, rest may appear impractical and difficult. Yet for a weary people, respite may be the only thing, that pearl of great price. The practice of sabbath rest might appear foolish, but it may be a crucial act of faith in our time.
The practice of prayer as “wasting time in God’s presence,” as someone has described it. Attention to eating meals together with the whole household. Joy in the small things and moments of the day. Solidarity with the dispossessed as a gospel value. Facing into sin—yes sin—as that which separates us from God and the people. It needs attention, and Lent begs for this attention. Sin which we have committed, but also that sin for which we are the beneficiaries. Our perverse avoidance of the fullness of life which God intends and has secured in Jesus Christ. The dignity and responsibility which God has bestowed upon us in baptism. These graces may be the right ones.
It seems to me that giving-up may be redundant this Lent. Seeking God and finding God’s graces anew, however, never grows old. These practices may mark a sweet spot in the hearts and lives of many of us during Lent this year. May it prove a good and holy season for us all.
George Wayne Smith
Episcopal Diocese of Southern Ohio