when there is nothing left in us
that can please or comfort our own minds,
when we seem useless and worthy of all contempt,
when we seem to have failed,
when we seem to be destroyed and devoured…
It is then
that the deep secret selfishness that is too close
for us to identify is stripped away from our souls.
It is in this darkness that we find liberty.
It is in this abandonment that we are made strong.
This is the night which empties us and makes us pure.
When I was a teenager, Lent was a competitive sport. I wanted not so much to walk the way of the cross as to strut the way of the cross. I wanted to achieve. I wanted people to say: “He is like Jesus. He is a tough [expletive deleted].”
As a freshman in high school, I decided giving up chocolate was passe. Instead, I ate nothing between meals, and this despite the fact that breakfast and lunch combined already constituted no more than a Carnation Instant Breakfast and six mozzarella sticks. As a bottomless pit in the middle of a violent growth spurt, I went from being chubby to looking like a rail in six weeks.
I got headaches. I liked headaches. They made me holy. Headaches were Jesus-ish. I imagined each one as a liturgically-appropriate purple ribbon bearing the words “Honorable Mention.” I decided to do it again next year.
And so it happened. But sophomore year, the headaches were skull-splitting. My head pounded with spiritual pride, and probably hypoglycemia, as I translated Latin homework at my kitchen table. My mother told me I was making myself sick and should stop right now. Perhaps a week later, as if on cue, I went down with chicken pox.
I doubt there was any inherent connection between starving myself and the galaxy of blisters that kept me home for a week, where I forlornly washed with oatmeal-based cleansers and endured endless reruns of Eight is Enough and Highway to Heaven. If you haven’t had the virus yet and haven’t been vaccinated, the roulette simply turns against you.
But through this minor disaster (and disasters are the way I evolve, for better or worse), I learned that showing off for God, and using God to show off, wins no medals. It destroys you from the inside. If there is indeed a system of natural law, a set of moral propositions built into reality that you must discover and obey because they are to be discovered and obeyed, then this is one of those propositions. I had more to learn, but here it began.
As a college freshman, I found a better vision. A Jesuit explained that during Lent we intentionally create absence, because absence enables new space for presence. We choose to keep a particular window open so we can see more clearly how we relate to God, self and others.
This year, I haven’t decided what I’m “doing” for Lent, even though Lent is a week old. Even so, I’ve pondered how absence and presence interact with something I always consider giving up, but never do: the internet.
I’m a writer. I work on WordPress. I scroll through news, religion and culture sites to stay up on everything. I use social media to promote my stuff and to ensure I can be more or less easily found. All my opportunities to get published, and to get published again, have arrived via the web. I can claim to need to be online for a significant part of every day.
But perhaps I also fear what would float to the top if I gave it up. Does reading article after article inform me? Or does it keep me conveniently aloof from the real people and worlds described in those articles, while providing the illusion of wisdom?
Do I need “likes” and “favorites,” comments and shares and retweets, to affirm a sense of personal value that I otherwise doubt? When I peruse selfies and baby pics and engagement-ring photos, am I still bound to the photographers in real life? Or do some of these “friends” for all intents and purposes no longer exist? I can turn it around: for whom do I really exist?
Do I substitute digital self-promotion for trusting God with my vocation? Do I find more hours per day of actual solitude frightening, because I know it speaks to me on terms other than my own? If I fled from cyber world to a “deserted place,” who would I–and God–turn out to be?
Lenten absence makes hard truths present. But these truths save us. In darkness, we see light. Dying, we live.