Needed: A Different Kind Of Lent

Clay bowl filled with ashes and a cross made of palm, sitting on some green palm leaves.
Instead of the usual emphasis on penance, can we focus this Lent on cultivating joy? (Photo courtesy of catholic.org).

The liturgical season of Lent begins this week with Ash Wednesday. This period of prayer, penance and giving feels much different to me this year — and not only because the pandemic will prevent many of us from going into a church to receive the traditional forehead tracing of ashes.

Normally, I look forward to Lent. It’s as an opportunity to shake out the inner ashes that have accumulated in my heart over the course of a year. There’s meaning in having a designated time to examine our shortcomings and engage in some sort of penance.

I believe this year, however, calls for something different. With the stress of the pandemic, with so many living in isolation, suffering the loss of jobs and loved ones, it feels as though we’ve been living a continuous Lent for nearly a year.

What’s perhaps most needed now is a return to joy. Isn’t one of reasons we challenge ourselves during this Lenten winter period (fasting on certain days, praying more intently, giving more generously of our time, treasure and talent) is so that our joy might be the greater when Easter arrives with its springtime promise of new life?

Word joy spelled in black letters next to person jumping for joy against sunlit background and tall grass.
Cultivating joy doesn’t mean we neglect other Lenten practices, such as prayer, service, almsgiving, fasting and penance. (Photo courtesy of The Preacher’s Word).

This doesn’t mean I intend to ignore Lent’s days of obligatory fasts, neglect my prayer life or fail to offer service to others. Still, I think the best and most meaningful way I can observe Lent this year to focus on the joys that nourish my soul.

One practice I intend to emphasize is the writing of poetry. Poetry was always my first love in writing, but I let it slip to the sidelines these past few years as I finished another non-fiction book. The writing of poetry is one way I pray, show gratitude for my life, and to paraphrase the poet Mary Oliver, “love the world.”

For others, joy might spring from sketching, painting, coloring, hiking, exercising, singing, playing an instrument, dancing, or merely taking a few moments within each day to focus on the miracle of our breath or the gift of our heartbeat.

Brother Paul Quenon compares the pursuit of a spiritual life to a dance. (Photo courtesy of The Abbey of Gethsemani).

My good friend and co-author on my upcoming book, Brother Paul Quenon, a Trappist monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani, often refers to the spiritual life as a dance. He notes that in Greek theology, the Trinity is described and sometimes depicted as a circle dance. Three dancers in one circle, dancing as one undivided reality.

The great Trappist spirituality writer Thomas Merton, who was Brother Paul’s spiritual director, once described his own search for interior depth as “dancing in the water of life.”

Front cover of Paul Quenon’s “In Praise of the Useless Life” shows hands of Trappist monk crossed in front of him.
Brother Paul Quenon writes of dancing ecstatically in a moment of prayer in his 2018 memoir, “In Praise of the Useless Life.”

Brother Paul distills this attitude in a beautiful scene he recounts in his 2018 memoir, “In Praise of the Useless Life.” He describes going outside, whipping off his shirt, removing his shoes, tossing the shirt in the air and dancing ecstatically beneath the half-moon in the night sky.

“Lifting and pulling, tossing and dropping, working hands, stretching arms … Each movement unplanned, a surprising, flowing symphony of what the heart wants to do next, then next,” Brother Paul writes.

In a brief coda to the story, he adds, “Last year, I really pushed my limits by dancing to a long scherzo by Anton Bruckner.”

Now that’s the kind of praying I think we should engage in!

What practice of joy — what dance — would you choose this Lent?

Author of 4 spirituality books & 2 poetry collections. Award-winning reporter for Wall Street Journal, PBS-TV, Washington Post & 2 IL public radio stations.