Many long years ago–meaning well over a quarter of a century ago–I wrote a book about Lent entitled Final Sanity. It and/or pieces of it have been re-printed so many times that I don’t even have a record of where and when, except to say that it was re-published in toto by Loyola Press some three or four years ago under the title, Wisdom in the Waiting. I love that title, Wisdom in the Waiting. I can say so because it was not my idea. But I also love the phrase “Final Sanity,” because that’s what Lent really is to me.
What I want to do now is perhaps a presumption on my part. If it seems so to you, then I hope you will either forgive or just simply ignore me, as seems best to you. But for all practical purposes, today is the last day in Lent 2008 that is not more or less regimented by liturgical circumstances and considerations. And I can not bear to let it all go by without at least telling you what I thought, and still think, Lent is also about.
Imagine, if you will, that the time is the early 1980’s and the scene is The Farm In Lucy where Sam and I are raising, children, cows, and mayhem in equal proportions. Imagine, and then come along with me:
Last night there was a storm…a cold front shifting suddenly and dropping onto us with ferocity and winds that bent down the pine trees along the fence line. Sometime after I went to bed, it tore open the pasture gate; so we awoke this morning to bitter cold and a scattered herd. Two pregnant heifers in the front yard, six more in the garden eating up what was left of the turnip greens, and seven others, mostly yearlings, playing at some kind of heifer tag in the windy orchard.
The mud from last month’s snow was three inches thick. Even frozen, it came laughing up to suck off our boots. We slopped and fell and prodded swollen bellies until, ourselves covered with ooze, we fell onto the broken gate and laughed our laugh to the gray dawn skies and the startled blackbirds. We drove the last ones through finally, my son and I, and repaired the gate right enough, coming in out of the cold with feet so wet and frozen that we couldn’t feel them and with our nightclothes covered in half-thawed manure. We stank up the kitchen with the good stench of late winter and of the earth when it is resisting one last cold front with the heat of coming fertility.
Later I stood at the spigot and washed the mud from our boots and felt again, as I do every year at this season, a grief for the passing cold. Looking across the pastures to the pond below, I knew it had indeed been the last storm before the spring, and I wanted to run backward toward the early morning, towards the winds and breaking limbs of last night.
“Lenzin” our German ancestors used to call this season, and since then we have called it “Lent.” It is a time when Christians decorate stone churches with the sea’s color and wrap their priests in the mollusk’s purple. It was once a time when all things passed through the natural depression of seclusion, short food supplies, and inactivity, a time when body and land both rested. It is still, in the country, a final sanity before the absurd wastefulness of spring.
Each year at this time it is harder for me to desire butterflies and lilies, even to wish for resurrection. Each year I come a little closer to needing the dullness of the sky and the rarity of a single redheaded woodpecker knocking for grubs in my pine bark. Each year also I come a little closer to the single-mindedness of the drake who, muddy underside showing, waddles now across the ice to the cold center water to wash himself for his mate, all in the hope of ducklings later on.
Through the thin, sharp air I can hear the younger children in the barn. They are building tunnels again, making forts from the dried bales of hay. From the yapping I know that even the dogs can join in the intricacies which imagination has contrived. The five-year-old chases field mice as her brothers build. She will catch another soon and drown it in the water trough with unsullied sadism, feeling only the accomplishment that comes from having helped to keep her part of the world in balance.
In the summer, the mice will leave, going back to the fields again, and she will take to pulling everything that blooms instead, bringing them all to me indiscriminately. The tin-roofed barn will be stifling, and the forts will have all been eaten. The boys will be picking beans and complaining of the itch from the okra leaves, being themselves too hot and tired to desire anything except nightfall and bed. The drake will have a family, which he will abandon to the mate he so much desires now, and the woodpecker’s carmine head will burn to tired tan. The farm in the summer becomes like the city is all year…too much color, too much noise, too much growing, too much hurry to stave off loss and destruction, too little natural death and gentle ending, too little time for play, too little pointless imagination.
I can remember many summers now; it is the singular advantage of years that one can do so. And I remember that once summer comes, I spend it wallowing in the easiness of it; the excess of its fruits and vegetables, the companionship of its constant sounds as the hum of insects and Rototillers gives way in the evening to the croaking of the frogs and the raucousness of the katydids. I remember also that I begin early, in that green time of summer, to dread the stillness of the coming cold; to fear the weariness of winter menus, the bitterness of breaking open pond water for thirsty cattle and of packing lunches–interminable lunches–for reluctant children on their way to school.
But for right now it is Lent, and for one more snow I can luxuriate in the isolation of the cold, attend laconically to who I am and what I value and why I’m here. Religion has always kept earth time. Liturgy only gives sanction to what the heart already knows.