A Communal Lent
by David Romanik
“Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.”
Book of Common Prayer, page 265
Last year, I stumbled upon the Lenten discipline of writing a daily handwritten note to someone I had thought about that day. This practice started on Ash Wednesday, when I took advantage of a few moments between services to write to someone I had been intending to write to for several weeks, and it continued every day (except Sundays) through Holy Saturday. I can say with some confidence that I can’t remember experiencing a Lent that was more personally meaningful or fulfilling. I learned several things during the season. In the first place: it doesn’t take much time at all to write a note to someone. Once I sat down to write the note, I was usually done in less than ten minutes. This was a helpful reminder for someone who frequently procrastinates when it comes to writing thank you notes. More significantly, I was genuinely shocked by the people who came to my mind. I ended up writing notes to people I hadn’t seen in years: old family friends, parishioners who hadn’t been around in a while, colleagues from previous churches, teachers and choir directors from childhood, and many others. Amazingly, lots of them wrote back! I heard from people I had all but forgotten, and forged new relationships that have continued to flourish over the last year. I can honestly say that this Lenten discipline changed my life.
As most of you know, I am a huge fan of Lent. I love the beauty of the liturgies, I love the fact that everybody makes an effort to engage with their faith in a different kind of way, and I love the fact that we are constantly reminded that despite our consistent failure to honor the image of God in ourselves and others, God continues to show grace to us. My Lenten practice last year, however, reminded me that Lent is also an opportunity to connect with other people, even as we rekindle our relationship with God. The more I have thought about it, the more I have realized that the discipline I basically fell into last Lent had all the features of a robust spiritual practice. It was a non-Episcopalian who helped me realize this. Richard Beck, a professor at ACU who teaches on the psychology of Christianity, notes that spiritual practices, at their best, are habitual, relational, and grounded: habitual, meaning that they are part of our daily practice; relational, meaning that they connect us to other people; grounded (Anglicans might use the word “incarnational”), meaning that they involve our bodies in some way. The act of physically writing a daily note that connected me to someone else contained all the features of a meaningful spiritual practice. No wonder it was such a fulfilling Lent!
I mention this, not necessarily to encourage you to adopt a note-writing practice during the season of Lent (although I can highly recommend it!), but to invite you to reflect on what you can do that is habitual, relational, and grounded. We often experience Lent as an individual enterprise: we take on personal disciplines and try not to call too much attention to them, for fear that we are “practicing our piety before others in order to be seen by them.” Yet the practice of Lent is about reminding the “whole congregation” of the faithful about the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel. Indeed, even deeply individual disciplines can be sources of connection. If you give up chocolate, for instance, and find yourself craving it, perhaps that will give you space to show compassion to someone who is struggling with their own temptations, some that might not be as socially acceptable. At its heart, Lent is a communal endeavor, a means of connection, a way of honoring the image of God in one another, which is only possible through God’s grace.
I invite you, therefore, in the name of this congregation, to the observance of a holy Lent: by prayer and fasting, by meditating on God’s holy word, and by finding ways to connect to the people around you in this community and beyond.