Beauty for Ashes: The Uncomfortable Magic of Lent

Beauty for Ashes: The Uncomfortable Magic of Lent

March 26, 2015

Ash Wednesday ushers in the Lenten season, and across the globe Christians join in solemn liturgy by confessing, “We are dust, and to dust we shall return.”

A full month of the season inhabits a spell of time that, at least in my corner of the world, dances upon the threshold between parched, dark winter and the dawning of spring. These two palpable realities live in tension with one another, as do the realities that we are creatures who embody eternal glory and that we are mortal.

This tension shepherds us into 40 days of reflection preceding Eastertide. Lent is often characterized by fasting, prayer, contrition, and sober recitation of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, his rejection, torture, death, and then eternally triumphant victory over death.

The Lenten season is always gritty.

A sometimes-neglected practice, confession becomes central to the transformative nature of these 40 days. Here I do not mean the version of confession in which we feel guilt-ridden and terrible about ourselves before God because we’ve wronged the people we love, or have failed to do good in the world. That is, in fact, not the sort of confession to which we are invited—ever.

Instead, Lenten confession is a process of contemplative admission regarding those things that keep us distant from God and from our neighbors. This type of confession, when coupled with actions of turning toward God and neighbor leads to freedom from guilt, from shame, and from confusion. But it takes real courage and compassion to look honestly at the less lovely bits of our lives.

Being dirty is uncomfortable; admitting to others that I’m dirty is even more so.

I don’t particularly like feeling exposed. But the Lenten season asks me, asks us, to lay lives bare before God and invite his perspective. It feels similar to inviting someone whom I know will be honest to look at a first draft of a poem, or come into the studio to see what’s on the easel. Yes. It feels like that experience…on steroids.

Lately the process of allowing God to edit my life has been uncomfortable…like discomfort on steroids. It has reminded me of a passage from C. S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader, in which Eustace, a boy full of complaint, believes a misperception regarding his place among his cohort of friends.

Eustace sulks off alone, and in his isolation stumbles upon a golden treasure. Taking comfort in the riches, he dons an armband and falls asleep, later waking to find himself morphed into a dragon, a beast no longer able to communicate or connect with his friends. No matter how he claws at his own skin or the armband, Eustace is not able to change himself back.

Later, Eustace recounts to his friends how he became himself again—or a version of himself that is truer than before. It had everything to do with an uncomfortable encounter with Aslan, the great Lion, who tells the boy to allow him to remove the dragon skin:

The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I've ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off.…Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off—just as I thought I'd done it myself the other three times, only they hadn't hurt—and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobly-looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me—I didn't like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I'd no skin on—and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. (115-116)

Eustace is freed by allowing Aslan to strip him bear—even though it’s excruciating—and then by being baptized. This, to me, is a parable of Lent—it is a season of allowing our lives to be honestly discovered by the only one who can transform them.

God helps us molt self-protection, anger, unbelief, and estrangement. Layers of pseudo-self flake off and crumble to dust. This type of editing, as all good editing does, liberates the creation to be its truest self.

Lent culminates in the celebration of Easter, a time during which, for centuries, catechumens make their baptismal vows. The dust of isolation is washed away, creating space for genuine, unfettered connection with God and with neighbors.

Naked and gritty days are exchanged for joy, renewal, and hope; beauty is exchanged for ashes.

To be truthful, most of us experience the tension of Lent more than once a year for 40 days. We feel, viscerally, the tension between filth and freedom, between parched lands and overflowing waters. And I think that perhaps the invitation of Lent is to practice letting God in close enough to remove the things that bind and isolate us—no matter how painful a process that might seem. On the other side of it is the renewed work, more itself than it has been before.

I have been reading John O’Donohue’s poetry over the past few weeks. In the volume To Bless the Space Between Us, one blessing, “For the Interim Time," captures what it feels like to be in-between—between the celebrations of Lent and Easter, between careers, between projects in the studio, between homes, between versions of myself. I leave you with part of this eloquent blessing in hopes that you may sink into Lent, and find liberation and refreshment in the in-between.

As far as you can, hold your confidence.
Do not allow your confusion to squander
This call which is loosening Your roots in false ground,
That you might come free From all you have outgrown.

What is being transfigured here is your mind,
And it is difficult and slow to become new.
The more faithfully you can endure here,
The more refined your heart will become
For your arrival in the new dawn. 



Explore more art, stories, and poetry on the in-between:

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