Slow, reflective, imaginative: the spiritual discipline of Lent

These are a few basic thoughts distilled from our Ash Wednesday ritual. Lent begins on March 5 this year.

Slow down

We need silence to find the spiritual place where Jesus is with us in our suffering and we are with Jesus in his suffering. Lent is the season of silence and solitude — and suffering. Some people will even “give something up” to cause some small suffering to give space where they can experience something more than their usual anesthesia, avoidance or denial. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of our yearly, disciplined journey of repentance and renewal, the beginning of the concentrated season of self-denial and self-giving that feels like suffering but points us toward joy  Wednesday we enter the great forty-day fast with millions of other Jesus followers – those living and those who have gone before. God bless you as you take your steps along the way of Jesus this year!

The interior journey too
The interior journey too

Let’s go as slowly as possible. We need to be quiet, thoughtful, and restful. We must not be impatient. We must not worry if we don’t feel or understand things right away — there are no expectations of Lent except that we seek after Jesus, explore the meaning of his death, and die with him. Paul shares our goal: I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,  and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.  Lent in not the imposition of some demanding God, but in solitude God’s presence will be compelling. One of Job’s friends has it right when he says: God is wooing us from the jaws of distress into a spacious place free from restriction. Let’s see how much we can cooperate.


Examine yourself; admit the truth about yourself to God; sense the conviction of God’s Spirit pointing out what is self-destructive or what amounts to an alliance with evil. Lent begins with an honest self-assessment. We pause to consider whether we have strayed from home, whether we have gone our own way, whether we are squandering our inheritance, whether we are feeding pigs in some way. The discipline of Lent dares us to be aware of our prodigal sides. We are looking for an awakening like the child in the Lord’s parable: “I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.”

We consider whether our lives sadden the One who gave them. When Paul teaches us about sin he says, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” Do not break God’s heart. Do not break up with God, who loves you. Do not turn your back on your lover. Do not live in fear as if you are not loved. Do not hold on to condemnation when you are freed from it. Do not violate the Spirit of love. Ash Wednesday is all about seeing God’s grief and sharing it. Lent is a season for turning back to love and rebuilding it.


We have become so unrelated in the world today that the early church rituals like those associated with Lent: ashes on our foreheads, fasting, communal spiritual disciplines all seem quaint to many of us. People of the past seem so tied up with God and one another! They were not anonymous or autonomous. They did not keep their distance. They did not know how to be absently virtual.

mourning, transforming black pines
mourning, transforming black pines

For instance, it is said that very early in the history of the church, it had become a regular practice to have people who had been caught up in serious sin to come to the community of the church seeking a way to re-enter the fellowship in good conscience for the main celebration of the year: Resurrection Sunday (Easter). They would be sprinkled with ashes and then sent off in “exile” from the church, “into the wilderness” with God – they are sent off with the expectation that they would be restored. Their forty-day period of repentance was called their “quarantine,” from the Latin for forty. It soon became common for friends to come with the penitents to receive ashes in solidarity with them and to express the truth that we are all sinners. The leadership of the church finally saw the wisdom in what was going on and encouraged everyone to repent and fast in preparation for the resurrection. By 1050 a pope had made it a requirement.

It makes sense to me to use this tradition as one with all the other Christians throughout history who have gotten the same point. – we need a time to be sick with sin and to get well — to let ourselves experience the grief of being separated, the desperation of our sorrow, the difficulty of having been far away in sin. We need to hope to be restored by Easter. We need to get into the truest story there is: we are the child of the grieving father; we were dying; we need to come back to life. The essence of the discipline of Ash Wednesday is to acknowledge that sin, brokenness and oppression. The call is: Remember from dust you are and to dust you will return.

We are so disconnected from nature and the seasons of the year nowadays. Even in a hard winter we expect to get our unseasonal fruits and vegetables, to travel without restriction, to go about our business as if nothing is happening, surrounded by our artificial environments. The people of the past seem so primitive, forced to live according to the changes around them.

Moving the couch toward the bonfire
Moving the couch toward the bonfire

For instance, in the villages of medieval Europe it was common to mark the beginning of Lent with a huge bonfire in the village square. The fuel for the fire was all the detritus left over in everyone’s house after people were cooped up all winter. In any number of ways people would use the fire to symbolize that winter was soon to be over, the fire was a statement of passion in direct confrontation to the numbness of the cold. It was time to look forward to spring.

Simple, physical symbols like that help us on our spiritual journey through time. Lent is a yearly season for spring cleaning. Ash Wednesday is the day to light the bonfire to burn what needs to be cleaned out. May your garbage be turned to ash. May we rise from our ashes. May we be transformed in a furnace of God’s Spirit burning in us and refining us. May sunrise come to your heart and spring touch your bitterness.

Let something burn. Let it go. Be freed. Be received. Use Lent for spiritual housecleaning. Turn around and remember who you are. Let yourself go. Let something grow. Let the consuming fire of God’s Spirit transform you. Have a vision of what can be.

Go slow. Begin with reflection – the Holy Spirit will help you. Proceed with imagination —  Jesus has made us each a new person.

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