As alone as I ever am

In the lonely journey of Lent, we learn anew the real source of our power to change the world: our complete dependence upon God, says Catherine A. Caimano.

Every time I looked up in recent weeks, it seemed as though a different revolution was playing out on my television screen. Libya? Egypt? Bahrain? Wisconsin?

I began losing track, and soon all the people started looking alike, their faces a mix of frustration, fear and jubilance. They shouted words and held signs, some in languages I understand, others not. Their faces revealed the spark of comprehension, the realization that together, united, they were wielding power for change, and at least potentially, transforming the world.

The world is changing so quickly, quicker than I ever remember. In the midst of the upheaval, people are rising up, banding together, demanding that the world work this way or stop working that way. They are looking, and working, for a better world. They know what humans together can accomplish, their power and their independence.

Meanwhile, I have been spending a lot of time alone. As alone as I ever am. On Ash Wednesday, I began my Lenten observation with silence and fasting. Each morning, for 40 days, I will read in silence from the ancient church fathers. I am eschewing sweets and alcohol and any kind of feasting and celebration, from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday, when I will fast again. I will pray every day, mostly alone, mostly in silence. I will, mostly, put aside my favorite form of prayer -- singing -- until Easter, along with the word “alleluia.” I will worship with others, but it will be as solemn as possible. It will not be a time for a lot of fellowship. And throughout these 40 days, I will remember again what humans cannot accomplish together, the power that we don’t have: our dependence.

Lent is difficult for many people, and not just because they give up a favorite food or activity. It is in this season that we look most unflinchingly at our sinfulness, our brokenness, our failure to connect with one another, our need for salvation. Lent is a season of preparation, to be sure. We are preparing again for events that make us Christian: the arrest, trial, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

But a very large part of that preparation is the willingness to be open to the truth of who we really are and the nature of our relationship with God. Yes, our true nature is that we are made in the image of God, but that image is often distorted by our sin. Our right relationship with God is one of worship, awe and humility, a relationship of dependence. And in all of this, we must come to understand our own fleeting nature, our inability to change everything or control everything, our own mortality.

This is as countercultural as Christianity ever gets. Looking out on the world, it seems so clear that we have the power and the ability to do so much, to make a difference, to reach out to our neighbors, to discover and build, to overthrow governments if that is what it takes to ensure that our children grow up with a brighter future than ours. It is so easy to believe that our power and our knowledge are limitless. It really is amazing what we can accomplish when we set our minds on making the world a better place. It rightfully makes us feel proud and powerful ... and without any need for God.

But eventually we become confronted with the fact that we do. Need God, that is. Not all our endeavors are good, even if we start out with the best intentions. Not every plan we undertake is free from selfish motivations or the possibility of harming others. No matter how hard we try, we eventually come to the end of our abilities, the limits of what we can do. Inevitably, we come up against the places where our selfishness and violence, individually and collectively, wound our world and our lives in ways that cannot be healed.

Yet it is there that we also have the opportunity to embrace the power of God, a God who died to save us, to offer us eternal life. A God whose love for us leads to reconciliation, with God and with each other. Places where we realize that in our own weakness we encounter God’s strength.

This is what makes Lent so valuable. When we stop and realize how small and broken we are, we also get to see how God’s love supports and heals us, how dependent on grace we really are, every day. When we are courageous enough to admit that we need God, we find that God fills that need a million times over. And thus, however gloomy they might seem, even small, simple Lenten disciplines -- forgoing dessert or a glass of wine, for example -- can remind us of both our smallness and God’s greatness.

Ultimately, Lent leads us back to the power that we do have. The extent to which we can do anything in the world is the extent to which we recognize our blessings, our talents and our obligations to serve our neighbors. Our belovedness does not depend upon our strengths. We are all loved by God, and in accepting this love and salvation we are able to be the sons and daughters of God that we were born to be.

Several years ago, the Church Ad Project created a wonderful poster featuring a picture of the Earth taken from space. The caption reads, “Without God, it’s a vicious circle.” With God, then, we have hope that God’s power in us can help us transform the world. But first, we have to feel that power. Lent gives us the time and space to drop all pretense that we live by our power alone.

Lent gives a chance to know that God sees us in our frailty and loves us fully, all the same. Lent gives us an opportunity to feel the darkness in and around us that will be expelled come Easter Day. Every year we have the chance again to take up our own discipline, our own preparation for the best news that any of us has ever heard.

We are never truly alone. We always live in the love of God and in the call to deeper relationship with God. Lent gives us the chance to remember our dependence upon God and in this gives us the strength to change the world.